The Golden Notebook (And Group Reading)

gn_homepage_title.gifIt appears that in the time I’ve been offline I have missed out on several big developments in the online fiction sphere. The Golden Notebook project is one of them.

Notebook isn’t really a blook – it is a novel by Nobel Lit-Prize winner Doris Lessing, and many consider it to be her most ambitious, and probably her greatest, work. The Notebook project is an ingenious one: it places the entire book online and it asks 7 readers, all women, to read the novel in real time and give their comments in the margins of the webpages that make up the novel. 

Part of me is awestruck: whoever came up with that idea must’ve been a friggin genius. But the other part of me – the writer part – is combing this project for ideas, is reading the book for the first time, and has come to the conclusion that whatever I have previously thought possible of this medium is but a pale caricature of what’s coming, of what can come.

Notebook as a novel is most famous for its structure: the work is divided into the four ‘notebooks’ of the writer Anna Wulf, each categorized by colour and each containing different aspects of her life. The story is concerned with Anna’s efforts to fuse all these disparate books together into one final, golden notebook, and the novel is set up in such a way that the four notebooks are referred to in non-chronological, overlapping manner, all excepts from the novel Anna is currently working on. The structure comments on the story, and the story comments on the structure, and it is precisely this that makes Notebook the kind of novel that takes weeks to read, and weeks more to figure out (another that springs to mind is Infinite Jest, which is structured in a circle, and where the beginning is the ending is the beginning is the ending).

What strikes me the most about the entire Notebook project is that it takes reading – an experience strictly individual – and it combines it with the living web: something inherently social and conversational, something that you really don’t expect reading to be. Now anybody going through The Golden Notebook can do so with the benefit of a host of people who are arguing, talking and who are above all, like you, trying to make sense of said and unsaid things within the novel. You no longer have to spend weeks of your life immersed in an epic, structurally intricate work of art, only to emerge from that experience going … huh. Or perhaps – and this is more likely – you no longer have to worry about leaving stones unturned while you’re reading the novel, as is often the case with such post-modernist works. 

Another thing that jumped out at me, right from the get go, was the very contemporary nature of the comments. On page 5 of the online novel (and, by the way, this is online pagination that actually makes sense) a paragraph in the margins pointed out that The Golden Notebook was one of the books listed as important to president-elect Barrack Obama. And the rest of the comment went on to say that certain books shape certain leaders in certain ways, which was all very interesting to think about and very helpful to me as a first time reader and certainly gave some idea of the context this novel occupies in modern day society, considering that it was originally written as a feminist text.

Commentary and pagination notwithstanding, I think the limitations of such a project are clear for all of us to see: The Golden Notebook works well in this format because it is written in such a way as to benefit from critique and discussion. There is, in fact, a podcast that talks about the many possible ways you might read the novel, and … yeah. That pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it? I’d definitely be better off with the opinion and insight of more established, familiar readers of Lessing and postmodern literature than if I’d read the book alone, and even Lessing says in her preface: “Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion, assume a crystallization of information in society which has not yet taken place.”

There is one other problem with this format that I am slightly uncomfortable with: and this problem is that of trust. My reading of The Golden Notebook will be greatly influenced by what these 7 chosen readers say in the margins, and I believe that the quality of that commentary, and perhaps the quality of my experience, would be strongly dependent on the quality of those readers. If these readers are competent, and are within the intended audience by which Lessing writes the book for, then I suppose I am in safe hands. Though, thinking about it, I’d expect that my experience should benefit from a clash of opinion in the margins, where perhaps I can choose from views the same way a shopper might pick merchandise off a shelf; but what does that say about this form of reading, and does that mean that I am entrusting these readers to do my thinking for me?

I don’t have clear answers for that, and at any rate attempting to answer them might derail this article and push us into the territory of pedantic, stuffy, reasoning. But one thing’s for sure: the days where people can say: “No great writer exists on the web” are gone for good.

[Update]: Turns out The Golden Notebook is done by none other than the guys at if:book, who’ve been behind quite a number of digital fiction experiments to date.

[Update 2]: On a slightly unrelated note: Christine Rosen over at The New Atlantis talks about the serious implications of shifting from book reading to digital reading. Much of her concerns are similar to what the New York Times have had to say on the issue. (via Sharon Bakar)

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