Postmodern interlude: Choose-your-own-adventure history

I’m interrupting (because that’s what one does in postmodernism) my thread of posts on United Methodist unity to relate an idea from a conversation I had with my girlfriend Allie.

We were talking about my dissertation, and I was asking her if she thought it was okay that my chapters overlapped somewhat in their content.  She responded that she thought it was and that connections between chapters helped readers form a web of understanding.

This concept of a web of understanding got combined with a comment I made about how I intended to provide references to other chapters when there was overlap.  The result was the idea of writing a history in the form of a choose-your-own adventure story.  The more we talked about it, the more I was really intrigued by this idea, especially as a postmodern form for a book of history.  I’m not always all in to postmodernism, but there are times when I think it unleashes creativity or provokes thought by deconstructing or dismissing convention.  I believe a choose-your-own adventure history could be one of those times.

You all remember choose-your-own-adventure books from growing up, don’t you?  You’d be reading along and then you’d come to a page where you had to make a choice about what you wanted the characters in the story to do.  If you chose one option, then you’d turn to a certain page.  If you chose another option, then you’d turn to a different page.  By making different choices, you could end up reading a number of different stories that finished with several different endings.  Sometimes alternate choices could still converge later on down the road; sometimes they didn’t.

The idea for a choose-your-own-adventure history as Allie and I developed it would work in a similar way.  You’d start with some historical person or event, say Otto von Bismark.  The history would give you several pages of information on Otto von Bismark and then present you with a choice: Do you want to learn more about Bismark’s role in building the German state, or do you want to learn more about his role in World War I?  Depending on which choice you made, you would then turn to the appropriate page, read about that subject, and then be presented with an additional choice about where you wanted the narrative thread to go next.

Normally, we think of histories as being linear stories about a series of events in the past.  Historians must make choices about how to tell the story and how to construct the narrative arc of their books.  By writing a history as a choose-your-own adventure book, the author would deconstruct the standard set narrative arc of a history book, giving the reader greater freedom to create their own narrative thread based on their own choices.  Of course, the reader wouldn’t have complete freedom, but the text would invite the reader into a much more active role in shaping and interpreting the material.

All this is very postmodern.  One could even up the postmodern ante, though.  While it would certainly be possible to write a choose-your-own-adventure history where the different threads led to different conclusions or, if you were skilled enough, even to the same conclusion, it would also be possible to write a book with no conclusion, where every portion of the book referred the reader to some other portion in an endless web of reference.

The term web is not coincidental.  I think such a form for a history book is as similar as possible to putting a website into book form.  Each choice at the end of a section is like a choice between different links one could click on.  This structure for a history is also like an encyclopedia, where there are additional suggested articles at the end of most entries.  The challenge for writing a history like this is to construct the various pieces so that they could still add up to a coherent narrative.  You can click on various pages of a website or read a series of encyclopedia articles, but most of the time, there’s no sense of development or continuous story.

As much as I’m really intrigued by this form of history-telling, I’m not going to try it with my dissertation.  Creativity is great, but there are limits to the types of creativity a dissertation committee is looking for.  They want to know that you can meet the standards of the discipline, which, for history, means being able to tell a traditional historical narrative.  Nevertheless, I think it’s an idea worth pursuing at some point.  Who knows – perhaps some postmodern historian who is reading this might like to purse this idea?  I’ve no links for you to click on depending on whether you do or don’t, but the choice is still yours.


Justin posted on September 30, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Just to be clear, what’s the distinction between what you’re describing and a marathon click session on wikipedia?

xtina posted on October 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I would totally read a history book like that. In fact, I think I would prefer it.

David W. Scott posted on October 1, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Justin, the main difference is that this would be in print.
Christina, thanks!

Scott (Helena, MT) posted on October 4, 2011 at 12:45 am

What if the reader could choose whether they agree with your argument in a particular chapter, then move to the next topic with a discussion geared toward their perspective?

I don’t really know my modern history, but say you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, and you write a chapter arguing that he genuinely wanted to free slaves. Then the reader gets asked at the end of the chapter whether she or he agrees. Then the next chapter –– perhaps already on a fixed topic –– is based on the reader’s own conclusion. If they agree with your thesis, the argument proceeds as if Lincoln wanted to free slaves; if they disagree, it proceeds as if he really just wanted to do what was politically expedient, or whatever the alternative might be.

This would be truly postmodern, right? Taking the power away from the author to determine what presuppositions the argument will build on? It has all sorts of problems, most notably that a big piece of history-writing is that an historian has studied the subject carefully on that basis proposes a way to look at things. If you took that kind of authority away from the author, maybe no one would ever learn anything. Still, it would be the truly postmodern way of writing a book, right?

Just some thoughts.

David W. Scott posted on October 4, 2011 at 6:01 am

That would be an extremely postmodern form of a history! Perhaps you could get around some of the challenges involved in the project by writing it as an edited volume. If you agree with author A, then proceed to read this article by author B. If you disagree, then read this article by author C.

Lahoma Taper posted on May 3, 2012 at 12:15 am

Next time I read a blog, Hopefully it does not disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, Yes, it was my choice to read, however I really believed you’d have something helpful to say. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you can fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.

Concerned Student posted on March 25, 2015 at 11:44 am

I’m just about to write my Bachelors dissertation on post-modernism and its effect on historiography, so was googling around when I found this. How did your dissertation go?

To the topic, isn’t this what Chapters do, and how most History is already read? From my own experiences it is rare that entire monographs are read cover to cover. There are of course key texts which must be, but the usual method is to skim-read, flitting from chapter to chapter, footnote to source, in what is essentially a web of knowledge gaining and consolidation.

David W. Scott posted on March 25, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Concerned Student,
You’re right that often people skim monographs and pick and choose which chapters to read. Yet they’re often doing this based on section headings and references in the index. Part of the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure history would be to provide more guidance for readers in interacting with the text in a non-linear way. Moreover, even though readers often skim, authors still write with an over-arching argument and sense of structure to their book. A choose-your-own-adventure format would change the author’s intent as well as the reader’s intent.

And thanks for asking about my dissertation. It went well, and I finished my Ph.D. two years ago. Good luck with your own upcoming dissertation!

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