The nonlinear reader

We generally consider reading books to be a linear activity: begin at the beginning and read one chapter after another until you reach the end. Me, I’m more of a nonlinear reader. It took a while for me to notice this about myself because I don’t go to the extreme of turning every book I read into a Choose Your Own Adventure book (turn to page 40! now turn to page 27! now go to page 189!), but maintain a general forward momentum and the illusion of linearity while in reality my reading goes off on all sorts of tangents.

Early on in my reading life, I was seduced by peeking. I’d start off reading a book the normal way and make it through a few chapters. But if I reached the end of a chapter a few minutes before I needed to do something else, I was stuck. I didn’t want to stop reading but I also didn’t want to stop partway through the next chapter. So I’d jump ahead a bit randomly and read a scene. Not too close to the end, but further ahead. And the next time I did it, I could be in a completely different part of the book. After a while, I’d have an assortment of unconnected scenes floating around in my head: nonlinear reading that gave me the impression of a book, but not the story as the author intended it. But not being completely nonlinear, I’d also continue to read the book front to back as I had time, slotting each disjointed scene into its proper place in my memory as I came to it.

17208721416_9bd13ab869_nOnce, just to see how nonlinear I’d gotten, I put a rubber band on the unread pages of a novel. This drove home the point of how often I peeked because I was wrenched back into awareness every time I tried to skip ahead and couldn’t. (Also, having to slip each fresh page out from under a rubber band is a really annoying way to read a book. I finally freed up a chapter at a time for reading comfort.) What hit the hardest, though, was feeling blindsided when a major character was killed. Apparently I’d been getting more warning from my peeks than I’d realized, and in other books, I’d braced myself emotionally for plot turns like this. With that book, I’d had no warning and I was probably as shocked as the author hoped I’d be.

Enter e-readers, and suddenly nonlinear reading got a lot harder, for the same reason I don’t like using e-book editions of reference books: it’s blasted difficult to skip around with an e-reader. You have to get out of the text, pull up whatever feature lets you move to another section, and decide how far to move. It’s a far more calculated set of actions than just letting a chunk of paper pages slip by and reading wherever you’ve cracked the book open again. Indeed it’s enough of an effort that basically, I don’t bother.

So for the past four years (wow, I’ve been reading e-books that long?), I’ve been reading novels the way authors have expected me to. I don’t need to skip ahead to figure out obvious plot twists, but now the clever, devious ones really do come as a surprise and without the annoyance of having to wrestle a rubber band. This hasn’t broken me of the peeking habit. I’m reading a print book right now, and this afternoon I finished a chapter four blocks from my bus stop and peeked for the next two blocks. But most novels I read now are e-books, and I think overall, the linearity has been a good thing. Even if it’s conventional. And hard on the nerves when favorite characters are in danger. 😉

So am I the only nonlinear reader out there? And if you read e-books, have they changed how you read books in any noticeable way?

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photo credit: Bookmark via photopin (license)

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