Defining a Text in the 21st Century

a stack of books

a stack of books

Here at my house, we are rather eagerly awaiting our daughter’s college graduation, just as many parents across the country are.  Because she’s a member of her school’s Honors College, our conversations with her the last few months in particular have been very academically focused: graduate school applications, her Honors Thesis, and germane to this particular post, a particular component of her Honors degree: her Reading List.

In addition to defending her thesis in front of a five member committee, part of the requirement for her achieving an Honors degree is the submission and defense of what is known there as The Reading List.  This list must include between 12 and 15 texts that demonstrate cross-curricular knowledge and in total define who the student has become as they’ve grown over the years they’ve spent in college.

I think it’s a really interesting idea.  Because Honors strives to produce well-rounded students who have been taught to consider texts far outside their field of study and, in many cases, outside their own personal philosophies, the lists cannot include more than one or two texts read prior to college and should not contain more than a few texts read specifically for Honors.

That’s the background to what is the central point of this post, which is what, actually, constitutes a text?  My daughter’s reading list contains items on it that we would not traditionally define as books—there is one music CD on there, and one movie as well.  Past students have also included graphic novels and multi-player video games.  We don’t normally think of things like video games and CDs as texts, and I actually asked her if it was acceptable to include such things on her list.  She assured me it was, stating that the Honors College has a very flexible definition of “text”.

photo via Wikipedia

photo via Wikipedia

And when you think about it, it makes sense that music CDs, for example, can be included.  Many records are episodic in nature with an actual narrative structure that, if it succeeds, tells an actual story over the course of the album.  In my day this was called a “concept” album, and from my time, the most famous one is probably The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but there are lots of others—Green Day’s American Idiot has a definite narrative, even a thesis.  And how many classics have been made into musicals, movies, and plays?  Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, even Jesus Christ Superstar all started out in written form. They still have a narrative structure.  There is still a story being told.  It’s just not being told in book form.

Same with video games—a lot of the multi-level games work from story boards and as the player progresses through the various levels (or chapters) they’re really working toward a dénouement: bad guy captured, prize achieved, the day is saved.  It’s just that this time, the story is told not through music and lyrics, but visually, and the “reader” (the game player) helps to create how the story plays out through the actions taken.

Persepolis

Persepolis

Things have changed since I was a college student. To date myself: most of us still used vinyl records, since CDs had not been invented yet; books were always bound paper, not digital; video games consisted of Pong and Space Invaders and Q-Bert—if you wanted to play a multi-level questing game, it was either pencil and paper like Dungeons and Dragons or a text-based adventure like Zork if your college had a computer lab and you could actually get time on one of the two or three computers to play it (because everyone else was on there playing Zork.  Seriously.  We never used those to write papers.  We had typewriters for that).  My English professors would not have accepted such a loose definition of a text, although one of them did, for a literary criticism assignment, allow me to apply certain theories to John Lennon’s poetry, which was considered quite daring.  Graphic novels were comic books and were generally considered low-brow, not something to be studied in a lit class or an Honors Class.  You can find entire classes devoted to graphic novels now, and my daughter read Persepolis as part of her Honors curriculum.

But times change, and furthermore, how we read has changed.  The proliferation of digital technology has, I think, encouraged how we stretch the definition of a text, as more people are downloading music and movies to portable devices to carry with them, and where online sites like Audible.com make listening to texts easier and more portable.  “Books on tape” have been around for ages, but “books on my iPhone” changes the reading experience in whole new ways—you can listen to a novel not only while driving or traveling, but while working out or even working for a living.  Computer graphics are almost life-like now; instead of the old text-based Zork, where I had to imagine myself and my surroundings and find my way through them, I can now make an avatar of myself and watch me make the story happen.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, either.  Far from it, in fact.  Stories are an integral part of who we are as a people, and they always have been. Every culture has its traditions, its classics, its music, its myths. The oral tradition of storytelling goes back for as long as we do, and cave paintings are the forefathers of today’s graphic novels.  Music has always told a story, either with lyrics or without them: folk songs, jazz and the blues, classical pieces, and rock and roll.  Nothing has really changed in that regard—it’s only the delivery system that’s progressed.  And with that, I think, it’s time to allow the definition of a text to progress as well.  We’re always going to have stories in these various forms.  And you know, 40 years from now someone will write something somewhere about all of our quaint Kindles and iPhones and how people used to interact with texts back in the good old days…