A novel view

Continuing yesterday’s discussion … when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”, he didn’t write a sequence of pages, but rather a sequence of words, sentences and paragraphs. How any particular published edition parses that novel into pages is largely an accident of things like font choice, page size and margin spacing. In that sense, a continuous papyrus scroll would actually embody a more faithful rendering of his work.

If physical books start to be replaced by eBooks, there is an opportunity to move nearer to the actual structure of a novel. Of course the long one dimensional image of a physical papyrus scroll is very unwieldy indeed. But since we have computers, we can find ways to fit such an image into a more manageable two dimensional structure, without compromising its fluid continuity.

In particular, we can imagine wrapping such a scroll around the surface of a torus (i.e.: donut) to make an endless ribbon. Much as an enormous strand of DNA is folded into the small space of a living cell, we can use such a helical winding to form an easily navigable two dimensional structure — because in addition to going up and down the text ribbon, we can also go sideways to take rapid shortcuts through the novel.

Best of all, this structure makes it easy to display the novel all at once, in a way that reveals its inherent structure, once we have discarded the irrelevancy of pages. Meta-data such as chapters, locations, or character presence/absence in scenes can be displayed in a clear and easy to understand way.

For example, in this Java applet I’ve taken “The Great Gatsby” and dropped it into such an interface. To suggest what’s possible, I’ve mapped the “what chapter is this” meta-data into color, which makes it easy to find chapter boundaries.

The presence of a shared visual map of the entire novel makes it easier to build tools that support search and queries, collaborative dialogs and layers of critical commentary over and around the text.

Yet even before such features are added, this visual organization illuminates the author’s work. For example, you can tell at a glance which parts of Fitzgerald’s novel are dialog, and which are descriptive passages, simply from the texture of the map.

3 thoughts on “A novel view”

  1. What I find most fascinating about this applet is that the novel appears ‘cyclical’; the end of the novel is connected directly to the beginning of the novel as a direct result of the interface. I’m not entirely sure what this cyclical structure might say about how the form of a novel would change if we were to assume your applet was the de facto standard for the novel of the future, but I’m excited by the thought of it.

    It would be interesting to perform the same treatment on a novel that a less strict linearity. Don Quixote or The Dictionary of the Khazars come to mind as possible candidates.

  2. I like the thumbnail view of the chapters that reveals some of the structure of the prose and the chapter boundaries. Isn’t it still a little arbitrary what cross-sectional diameter you choose for the torus (and hence, how far you skip around in the book with a sideways move)?

  3. Yes, it is somewhat arbitrary, and that’s the price to be paid for efficient use of space. Without that efficient use of space, it would not be possible to see the entire novel at a glance.

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