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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Category: News · Publishing
  • lethe


    I like the format of the project, how it appears on the screen, with the comments off to the side; and I think this works for established literature. There is enough interest to draw an interactive audience. And I see your enthusiasm for what this kind of online reading might lead to in a digital age. A sort of exegesis of each text by the common reader. It is a good exercise in close reading; a good tool no doubt.

    But I’m more interested in what the writers can do. The purpose of this (Golden Notebook) project is to elevate an understanding of the text and to promote discussion. I’m not against this by any means; but I approach the digital text from a writer’s point of view. What can I do with the story to enhance the reading experience? Usually this involves a multimedia dimension, photos, videos, and other interesting links. Usually this involves creating an “intranet” of linkages within the novel itself.

    All I’m saying is, there are two separate projects to keep in mind when discussing the future of online reading/novels; the readers and the writers. The Golden Notebook project is aimed at readers; and the future of this sort of online reading will begin with the classics. It will be aimed at reading groups and discussion.

    I wish my novels were as deep as Doris Lessing so as to promote critical commentary. But I’m not there yet. Where I am is in the creative stage of production, and although my texts deepen as I continue to write more, I’m also interested in the web-specific presentation of my texts.

    Does that make sense?


  • Eli James

    It makes perfect sense, coming from where you’re standing. But I disagree with the notion that you can learn nothing from this, and that what if:book is doing isn’t useful to writers.

    The if:book organization has for some time meddled with the effect of conversation in lit, and they’ve been particularly interested in how the two may be put together on the web. I’ve covered their release of the commentpress theme sometime ago – what it does is that it allows your reader to comment on very specific paragraphs within your writing, and display them in a non-obtrusive hypertextual form (think footnotes, only with AJAX magic that makes them pop up only when you want to read them). This experiment is taken to its logical conclusion here with Notebook. There are plenty more to learn from the Notebook project – for instance, notice the way pagination and bookmarking within the novel is done? Also, notice how Apt, the design firm hired to this project, creates a very strong visual identity for the book with nothing more than a calligraphic header and some subtle paper-like gradients? These are all qualities we can take, and learn, and apply to our own fiction.

    I also disagree with the notion that we should divide online fiction projects into ones emphasizing the reader, or ones emphasizing the writer. It’s a tad unnecessary, really. A good digital fiction project is captivating for the reader. How the writer accomplishes this, or whether he chooses to make full use of the medium while he writes, is irrelevant if he cannot fulfill that first criteria. So the only question that matters, when you think about it, is: how can I best write and present captivating stories for my readers on the web?

    All else isn’t really important.

  • chris

    You mention “commentpress theme”. I went to the if: book site. Is that the download they’re calling “Sophia”? I wonder if “wordpress” will come out with a similar theme?

    Okay, granted the split screen mimicking an open book is clever and advantageous. “what it does is that it allows your reader to comment on very specific paragraphs within your writing”. I agree with this.

    But essentially, this is a blog. There are some definite technical points and nuances that enhance the ability to comb the text and to comment on it in specific places. But visually, I’m not stimulated at all. It reminds me of an electronic (scholarly) document. All white and black with lots of words and no space between paragraphs.

    And as far as the comments go, how is this different than a blog set up for a limited amount of commenters?

    Don’t get me wrong Eli, this is great for literature; it will get more people interested in discussing literature. But as it stands I’m not inspired by this effort.

    Now I agree that the writer’s aim should be in line with the reader’s desire. But we are looking at this from the opposite end of the telescope. The if: book people are not the authors and they are not creating the text; they are elucidating it after the fact.

    As a writer, I am in the process of creating an electronic text with the tools that I have available to me. Therefore I look at the project from the opposite end. I don’t think these two projects will ever look alike. I think they exist on two separate rails, if you will.

    I love the exploration, the expansion, of digital media. And I’m really glad you told us about this. The great thing about your site is that you are constantly bringing these developments to our attention. I just wonder what the if: book would look like in a writer’s hands . . .

  • Eli James

    Chris, the Sophie project is not at all related to the commentpress theme. Sophie is an ebook format for educators and teachers, to allow them a way to bring in lessons, videos, and music all in a standardized form that should last generations, regardless of software change. I covered it here.

    The commentpress theme is a WordPress theme, tailor made for blogs. I think they’ve pulled the download page from their website because I can’t find it (and they have a server change not too long ago, so they’re probably still moving things around). But you can read more about it here.

  • chris

    I’d be interested in that wordpress theme for my fiction.

  • Eli James

    Expect an email from me if they relaunch it. =)

  • bibliobibuli

    chet told me about this project but i forgot to go and check it out till now! thanks for the nudge.

    i read the book … hmmm … decades ago and it blew me away

  • Eli James

    You’re welcomed, Sharon. Am actually reading the book online at the moment, and it’s … well it’s not something I normally read on-screen, that’s for sure.

  • Mndnabbasi

    plz if anybody has the pdf of dorris lessings the  golden notebook send me to my email adress:  plz i need it desparately