Discover Magazine: What Remains to Be Written?

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In the 25th Anniversary issue of Discover (Oct. 2005) there's a neat article in the reviews section asking scientists whether there are any science books that remain to be written, and what uncharted territory they (the scientists) would cover in the book.

Vera Rubin, astronomer and Senior Fellow in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie institution of Washington had this to say, and I love it:

I would like to see a multilevel book, written for toddlers, schoolchildren, college students, and adults, that would look at the world around us and answer questions that youngsters may or may not ask as a day progresses. ... Each page off a tall book might have four sections, top to bottom, with the first answer being for the child, the second answer for those a little older, the third a "scientific explanation," and the final one a philosophical discussion of pertinent concepts like forces or brains or animals. Alternatively, there could be four pages per question, each page hidden behind the first...."

I read this just as I was hitting the midpoint of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (more on that soon), and the convergence was frustrating. Exhilirating, too, but 'frustrating' because this multilinearity would be so easy to do, so valuable, and yet it really isn't done. For lack of a better term, I'm going to call it 'tiered engagement' and attempt a definition.

Beyond the cut: Definition and discussion

Tiered Engagement

Tiered Engagement means that the reader receives different material based on both their own experience of the text and on their interest. Tiered engagment is one model for tailoring a text to the reader while maintaining focus and progress around a central narrative.

(See the full discussion in the Term entry)

Print Challenges for Tiered Engagement

It wouldn't be difficult to do in a book, though Rubin's struggle in her single-paragraph answer to suggest the best interface for the design foreshadows marketing problems for such a book. Shooting from the hip, I don't think that very many books get written or marketed at the outset for the entire age spectrum... and books that do get recognized for their multi-generational appeal do so as time passes.

I think the multi-generational problem would be especially pertinent for a print book. You could certainly write a book so that it would appeal both to parents and to their children and to help parents teach their children, but a lot of the value for such a work would come in allowing rereadings as children age and are able to revisit material in a deeper sense later. The 'spiral' metaphor is big in some pedagogical circles, recommending that repeated re-engagement with topics at progressively deeper levels is an excellent way to build understanding as well as factual knowledge. A print book, though, is static. The theories of today are likely to be out of date in the ten years it will take a child to grow into the third or fourth level of Rubin's book. At the very least, better articulations will have come along.

Hypertextual Advantages for a Tiered Textbook

The challenges for such a work in print are advantages in the dynamic world of hypertext. For one thing, Rubin is suggesting one sort of hypertextual structure already-- a multilinear narrative with topical and age-related threads. One of the benefits of such a structure is that a reader who doesn't fit easily into one of those categories --because their interest transcends the topic or they can read past their age or both-- can turn a corner in their reading and read in a sensible direction that the author nevertheless didn't specifically write in.

Where is it?

Why don't we see this sort of thing out there... or where should I look? The back of the Historical Atlas of New York City has a quote lauding it as the closest thing to a CD-ROM you can get on paper, so perhaps there are a bunch of well-done CD-ROMs out there.

I'd like to think that I'm just not seeing works incorporating tiered engagement (and that I'll shortly get emails recommending a few). But I don't see them right now. Most works channel you through the reading they want, or are completely open (rather than being intelligently tiered). And works that are at least 'promiscuously linked' in an informative way (like Wikipedia) nevertheless assume a generic engagement level or duck the issue entirely and leave it up to the reader.


Anonymous. "What Remains to Be Written?" Discover Magazine Vol. 26 No. 10 (October 2005).

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on December 28, 2005 6:06 PM.

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