Interactive Reading, Early Modern Texts and Hypertext: A Lesson from the Past

Posted December 12th, 2005

by Tatjana Chorney, Saint Mary’s University

Views Over the past decade, the increasing presence of hypermedia environments in the lives of a growing number of readers and learners has contributed to a change in the definition of “text.” However, we still do not have adequate ways of speaking about the implications of the gradual extension of the notion of text—an entity existing usually in print, with clearly defined borders and presenting information in a highly structured manner—to e-text or hypertext, a much more fluid concept, whose borders are not at all clearly defined, and whose manner of presenting information is non-linear. Because “hypertext is a mental process, as well as a digital tool,”[1] one of the larger cultural implications arising from this change in the meaning of text concerns the role of the reader. Text in print implies and, to a certain degree, constructs a passive reader, one who is often a “receptacle” of information. Hypertext is shaping an appropriative reader who is interacting with the text, and is involved in knowledge construction.

Although this shift in the position the reader in many ways arises from the new technology, the manner of active reading in which the reader is empowered to construct meaning and to change the “original” text is at least as old as the early modern period.[2] The Renaissance reader was accustomed to applying “alien” texts to new purposes in a method of appropriative reading that was a consequence of the Renaissance technique of collecting commonplaces.

Increasing our historical awareness of Renaissance reading habits will not only help us avoid technological determinism but will also extend our awareness of the current changes in the definition of text and the concomitant shift in the nature of reading and knowledge management. This in turn will inform our pedagogy by increasing our ability to relate to a student body whose reading and learning habits are already a product of the “digital age” and continue to be shaped by the new medium. Many of our students are “Net-generation” learners whose minds are accustomed to bite-sized bits of information that can be easily transferred, manipulated and appropriated into different contexts and integrated into different “wholes.”[3]

To begin, interactive reading can be defined as a process in which readers have control over the texts they are reading. This control enables them to influence the nature of the reading process in that they are able and free to participate actively in the construction of meaning of whatever they are reading. Renaissance reading habits and those fostered by the hypertext environment (which has become synonymous with the Internet), are similar with regard to four broad issues: 1. non-linearity; 2. a protean sense of text and its functions; 3. affinity with oral models of communication, and 4. a changing concept of authorship.[4]

In my work on the manuscript circulation of John Donne’s poetry, I have come across a number of records revealing the extent to which 17th-century anonymous readers—those who did not belong to Donne’s coterie composed mainly of friends and patrons—interacted with the texts they were copying into their own manuscript compilations. A compelling and generally overlooked aspect of English manuscript collections and commonplace books from the 16th and 17th centuries is that most of the writers of the texts they contain, such as Donne, Jonson, King, Herrick, and others, have been identified by bibliographers and textual scholars only centuries after their compilation, and not by those who copied the poems. A large number of poems in these collections appear without any indication as to the author’s identity (whether known or unknown to the scribe or owner at the time of recording); texts are often untitled or retitled (at least, with titles different from the ones we have come to associate with them); they also often appear in fragments, and these are sometimes blended seamlessly into other fragments or entire poems.

Single lines, like line 24 from Donne’s “The Dreame” (“That love is weake, where feare’s as strong as hee”) were taken out as sententiae with aphoristic value. The last four lines of Donne’s “The Bracelet,” appear recorded in the Fullman MS as a new short poem (Bodleian MS CCC) bearing the new title “A Creditor.” The excerpted lines were treated as poetic “commonplaces,” “generally applicable ideas, precepts and images pointing to or illustrating universal truths.”[5] These ideas could be used later to adorn or enhance formal arguments as well as informal discussions to increase the copia or eloquence of the reader/writer.[6]

Formal and conceptual reworking were not uncommon either. Donne’s “A valediction: forbidding mourning” found in a mid-seventeenth-century anthology of poetry, shows that the collector, under a different title, converted Donne’s nine tetrameter quatrains into five pentameter six-line stanzas, each ending on a rhymed couplet after “the first four lines replicated the alternating rhymes of the ‘original.’” This is not simply a “version” of Donne’s poem, but a “major reworking,” “done with the creative freedom that collectors and imitators in the system of manuscript transmission felt free to exercise.”[7]

The interactive tradition of reading in the Renaissance is not confined to the fluid manuscript environment. During the Reformation in 16th-century Italy, the Dominican Giovanni Rubeo was in the habit of copying passages and sometimes entire pages from the works of Bucer, Zwingli and Calvin inserting them later into his own sermons, while Michel Montaigne, in his Essais, claimed, “I only speak others in order better to speak myself.”[8]

These examples indicate that early modern readers assumed three functions or roles: they were readers, but the reading process implied that each reader was also, in the words of Henry King, “both the Scribe and the Author.”[9]

Interactive reading in the Renaissance was part of the characteristic model of learned reading based on the intellectual technique on collecting “commonplaces.” A reader read texts in order to “extract quotations and examples from them, then note down the more striking passages for easy retrieval or indexing,” or for later use either in writing or in speaking. The “reference” style of reading is symbolized in the reading wheel, “a vertical wheel turned with the help of a system of gears permitting the readers to keep a dozen or so books, placed on individual shelves, open before them at one time.” [10] Reading for “linear narrative” is here replaced by reading multi-linearly or for points of interest that can later be arranged into a new “narrative” according to individual needs and contexts.

The reading of texts in manuscript also emphasized a “communal” sense of textuality.[11] Manuscript culture especially was orally-inflected and “conversational” because writer and audience knowingly participated in the form of “publication as performance.”[12] For 17th-century poet Katherine Philips, for example, and for many others like her, poetry set in print “wrested” the texts out of their natural, fluid manuscript environment in which they were closer to the living word, and set them in ways that stood oddly fixed and immutable.[13]

The appropriative treatment of and approach to various texts implies a cultural attitude to writing and reading similar to the one articulated by some twentieth-century reader-response theories, or the reader shaped by the hypertext environment. In all three models, readers are seen as having a co-creative role. It is in the idea of the “living” text open to transformations, and in the approach to reading as a creative and re-creative engagement with the text, that past and present resemble one another.

The experience of reading texts in hypertext, the best known example of which is the World Wide Web, is very similar to the experience of reading with the help of a “reading wheel.” It encourages reading not for “linear narrative” but for points of interest, empowering readers to shape and control the reading process by selecting and reading only those parts of texts that are memorable or relevant to them. Similar to the past model, here author and reader often have in common the knowledge of “publication as performance.” Authors “conceive of their works so that readers have many choices along the reading path; they are invited to transform and contribute to the texts, which in turn transforms the literary work into a more open-ended experience.”[14] This approach to writing and reading in hypertext allows the modern reader to assume the three functions mentioned earlier with regard to Renaissance readers, that of reader, “scribe” (one who transcribes or copies the texts of others), and author.

The experience of composing and reading poems in hypertext, as recorded by poet Stephanie Strickland, echoes my description of reading in the Renaissance and captures the spirit of the shift from a print-oriented textuality to hyper-textuality: “When a set of poems is composed in or into hypertext, the space in which they exist literally opens up, [r]eleased from the printed page into this floating space, readers are often uneasy. What is the poem?…Only slowly does one assimilate the truth that one may return each time differently.”[15] “Returning each time differently” encapsulates one of the dominant aspects of hypertext. It is a format that does not depend on a print-informed sense of “original narrative as only context.” It allows for “multiple entrances and exits” from a text. As “wherever the reader plunges in, we find a beginning,” linearity becomes “a quality of the individual reader’s experience.”[16]

As a personal-public pastiche, just like the manuscript environment in the Renaissance, the Internet questions the boundaries between authorship and readership. In his hyperpoem, “Medical Notes of an Illegal Doctor,” poet Alexis Kirke invites readers to envision the poem as a space for social dialogue, and “mutate” the poem by entering their changes in the section “text to be added or changed,” which will after a few clicks, transform the initial poem.[17] The reader is here invited to author as he reads, by adding new text with new links and titles. While reading in the Renaissance was described as “poaching,”[18] reading in hypertext is described in very similar terms, as “welding,” “where the meanings extracted—decontextualized—from different parts of the text can be crafted—re-contextualized”— into something new.[19]

In acknowledging and validating the polysemic nature of language and human expression and experience, hypertext is linked with “orality” and the idea of the “living word.”[20] Internet based communication tools such as email, IRC (Internet relay-chat), forums, and synchronous conferencing illustrate well the association between spoken and written language. Many, and especially “digital natives,” those who do not know life without computers, treat the interactions enabled by these communicative spaces informally. They use expression almost as verbal communication, and their texts bear informal “oral” markers in the lack of punctuation and capitalization, and the use of emoticons whose nature and meaning is modeled on body language.

On-line scholarly essays, too, often function on an interactive principle in that their basic structure subverts the idea that readers have to read in an order intended by the author. They are most frequently organized episodically; the content is broken into relatively short units held together by loosely related ideas, each with a different title and each connected to the next or the previous one with a link. For instance, Kaplan’s recent essay on “politexts” emphasizes an “out of order” reading paradigm: “There are a number of ways to read this essay, none of which will exactly replicate the text of the talk I gave. Take chances with your choices.”[21] This aspect of reading in hypertext will gradually lead to the development of different argumentation strategies, and generally a different sense of narrative structure.[22]

Hypertext thus offers an alternative to what Lyotard calls “the tyranny of coherence,” and indicates that the thinking modality encouraged by it is “closer to the way the mind works.”[23] Hypertext thus compels us to reconsider the nature of text in essential ways. By encouraging a “piecemeal” approach to composition and reading, it reeducates us into a form of the “commonplace” tradition of reading and information management. Interactive reading reminds us that knowledge can be transmitted not only through self-referential, extended narratives emphasizing closures, but also as “collections of ideas that can arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of hierarchical and associative patterns—each pattern meeting the needs of one class of readers [and writers] on one occasion.”[24]

We seem to be experiencing a form of convergence in reading paradigms with past models. However, while the interactive model of reading in the Renaissance was a product of a wider cultural attitude to texts and the world, the interaction enabled by hypertext, and its implications, are often perceived as running against and threatening most cultural and institutionalized notions about texts, reading, and education based largely on print models.

My main point in placing the past and present sense of text and reading experience side by side, therefore, is: 1) to draw attention to the cognitive aspect involved in managing and understanding information, and 2) to make explicit the major assumptions that govern interactive reading in any context.

And while one may be a student who in her spare time reads novels from back to front, and middle to back, that same student placed in a traditional learning environment will soon realize that there may be no legitimate or readily articulated context for her quirky reading habit. Traditional education emphasizes submission to authority, often rote memorization (more frequent in disciplines other than English studies) and what Freire called the “banking concept of education,” in which learned teachers deposit knowledge into passive students, implicitly inculcating conformity.[25] This is likely one of the reasons why it is proverbially difficult, as it is often heard in academic teaching circles, to “get your students to talk” and why so many pedagogical seminars are held on the same topic. Becoming a student and a teacher who engages in multiple forms of interactive practices and honors the results of these practices does in many cases require practice.

The new model of education calls for multi-linear problem solving, and an “interactive” and “participatory” workforce. In a recent article, Andrea Leskes, vice-president for education and quality initiatives of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), reminds us that economic globalization, “fueled by the transformative power of modern communications” poses particular local challenges for institutions of higher learning across the world. The so-called “Greater Expectations Report,” formulated by the Association in 2000, examines the changing role of the academy and liberal studies in the 21st century.[26] The report stipulates the central aims of global liberal education as having to respond to a world characterized by change and interconnection by preparing students to be integrative thinkers. As integrative global thinkers, students would be able to take a more active part in their learning, and then transfer easily what they learn from one context to another. Integrative learning is based on an essential flexibility in how we conceive of knowledge creation and management, which in turn allows for integrating apparently unrelated or various ideas and methods into new and unforeseen paradigms, contexts, and unities. Studying the dynamic of interactive reading is thus not only a look back on past practice, but also a model for studying integrative teaching and learning in a global world, and a way of responding to the perceived “lack of clarity of purpose in undergraduate education” as the outcome of “….escalating demands created by changes in both the campus experience and the emergence of high-technology industries and applications.”[27]


1. Paul Gilster, Digital Literacy (New York: John Wiley, 1997),136.

2. The Renaissance inherited the tradition of collecting commonplaces from Antiquity and from the Middle Ages. Thus, the idea of reading as interaction with the aim of remodelling and reusing the whole or parts of the given material is very old. However, as Walter Ong reminds us, it was the Renaissance humanists who distinguished themselves particularly in this practice, and who formulated the contemporary theory of education based on the commonplace technique. Erasmus and his followers, “broke down virtually the whole of classical antiquity into these bite-size snippets or sayings (adages or proverbs, and apothegms or more learned sayings), which could then be introduced into discourse as they stood or be imitated.” See Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale U P, 1967), 62-3. Also see Ong, Interfaces of the Word : Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell UP, 1977) and Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word (Methuen, 1982), and Ann Moss, Printed commonplace-books and the structuring of Renaissance thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

3. See D. P. Tackaberry, “The Digital Sound Sampler: Weapon of the Technological Pirate or Pallet of the Modern Artist?,” Entertainment Law Review 87, 1990; Thomas Schumacher, “’This is Sampling Sport’: Digital Sampling, Rap Music and the Law in Cultural Production,” Media, Culture and Society 17 (1995): 253-273; John Perry Barlow, “The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age,” Wired (March 1994), and B. R. Seecof, “Scanning Into the Future of Copyrightable Images: Computer-Based Image Processing Poses Present Threat,” High Technology Law Journal 5 (1990): 371-400; Ronald Deibert, Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia: Communications in World Order Transformation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Michael Rogers and David Starrett, “Techped: Don’t Be Left in the E-Dust” National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter 14.5 (1996-2205), online version accessible at

4. While my claims here are made in relation to a past model of reading characteristic of Western Europe and records of reading habits gleaned from English manuscript collections, the full range of changes brought about by the new technology with regard to the process of reading and the social attitude toward textuality, and their similarities to various, other past models of reading is an emerging area of study.

5. Peter Beal, “Notions in Garrison: The Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Book,” New Ways of Looking at Old Texts. Papers of the Renaissance English Society, 1985-1991, ed. Speed Hill (Binghampton: MRTS in conjunction with the Renaissance English Text Society, 1993), 135.

6. In Harley Rawlinson MS (British Library, Harley MS 3991). See Peter Beal, Index of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1625, Vol. 1 (London: Mansell, 1980), 332.

7. Arthur Marotti, Manuscript, Print and the Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 152-3.

8. See Jean-Francois Gilmont’s “Protestant Reformations and Reading,” The History of Reading in the West (eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, trans. Lydia Cochrane, U of Masachusetts P, 1999), 231; Terence Cave, “Mimesis of Reading in the Renaissance,” Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes, eds. John Jyons and Steven Nichols, Jr (Hanover: UP of New England 1982), 156. See also Cave, “Problems of Reading in the Renaissance,” Montaigne: Essays in Memory of Richard Sayce, eds. I.W.F. Maclean and I.D. McFarlane (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1982), and The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979).

9. Cited in Margaret Crum, “Notes on the Physical Characteristics of Some Manuscripts of the Poems of Donne and Henry King,” The Library, 5.16 (1961), 121.

10. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, A History of Reading In the West, eds. G. Cavallo and R. Chartier, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999), 29.

11. A fascinating example of this “communal” aspect of Renaissance textuality is the manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana, a theological treatise ascribed to John Milton, but whose actual composition as it stands today is the works of at least a few others who have added or changed sections of the text without clearly indicating their involvement in this “co-authoring” of Milton’s text. See Gordon Campbell, Thomas N. Corns, John K. Hale, David I. Holmes, Fiona J. Tweedie, “The Provenance of De Doctrina Christiana,” Milton Quarterly 31.3 (1997): 67-119.

12. After McLuhan, there have been many very useful discussions of the conversational, social dimension of the manuscript culture in the Renaissance, especially with regard to Donne. See, for example, Harold Love, The Culture and Commerce of Texts: Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century Culture (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993); Arthur Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986); Ted-Larry Pebworth, “John Donne, Coterie Poetry and the Text as Performance,” Studies in English Literature 29 (1989): 61-75.

13. Margaret Ezell, Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1999), 53-4.

14. Eduardo Kac, “Holopoetry, Hypertext, Hyperpoety,” Originally published in Holographic Imaging and Materials (Proc. SPIE 2043), ed. Tung H. Jeong (Bellingham, WA: SPIE, 1993). Accessible at:

15.Talk given at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, April 10, 1997. Accessible at:

16. Ingrid Hoofd, “Aristotle’s Poetics: some affirmations and critiques.” Accessible at:

17. The poem can be accessed at:

18. Gilmont, “Protestant Reformations and Reading,” 231 (see note 8).

19. Andreas Luco (1999), whose Website features numerous other discussions dealing with the relationships between critical theory and cyberspace:

20. I am aware of the host of possible models of communication enabled through the Internet, including the variety of combinations among text, sound and image content. I cannot help but notice that the association between image and text in particular is a very interesting “comeback” of the emblem tradition. This, however, is a different topic; here I am concerned primarily with text-based hypertext.

21. Nancy Kaplan, “Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formations of the Late Age of Print.” Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, Vol 2.3 (1994), page 3.

22. See George P. Landow, The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992), and Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1997).

23. Jean Mason, “From Gutenberg’s Galaxy to Cyberspace: the Transforming Power of Electronic Hypertext,” (Diss. McGill U, 2000), accessible at: Mason’s work is one of the very few discussions that aims to examine hypertext and its implications with regard to pedagogical practice and long held assumptions about literacy and creativity.

24. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991), 87.

25. Douglas Kellner, “Technological Transformation, Multiple Literacies, and the Re-Visioning of Education,” 3, accessible at <>

26. The Report is part of the AAC &U online publications, and can be accessed at:

27. ibid.