Reading by the Rules

To read about Choose Your Own Adventure Books, click here.

[If anyone was hoping for another Cowboy Bebop post, don’t worry – I haven’t abandoned the series. But Choose Your Own Adventure came up on one of the podcasts a little while back, and I wanted to get this finished while it was still on my mind.]

In a few hundred years, when people get around to writing a really definitive history of avant-garde literature in the 20th century, I hope they pay enough attention to Choose Your Own Adventure.

I’m not even slightly kidding.  The Choose Your Own Adventure books (and the other gamebook series – Time Machine, Tunnels and Trolls, Fighting Fantasy, and so on) are a far more successful challenge to our received notions of what “reading” is about than any modernist novel I’ve encountered.

And everyone read Choose Your Own Adventure back in the day.  Two hundred and fifty million copies sold between 1979 and 1998, according to Wikipedia, and in 38 languages.  Astonishing.  I have no idea how to figure out how many copies of Finnegan’s Wake were sold during the same period, but I’m guessing less.  And while I hear you saying already that selling a lot of copies doesn’t actually make a literary work successful, it does matter in this case.  A challenge to standard narrative that doesn’t reach a mass audience is not really a challenge at all.  It doesn’t mean the niche stuff isn’t good or important, but to be a really viable alternative it needs to be, uh, viable.

The title, too, is almost eerily perfect.Anyway, the CYOA books would have been pretty radical even if they hadn’t been lucrative.  The earliest gamebooks came out of the French experimental literature collective Oulipo:  in 1967, Raymond Queneau produced a short story in this format which you can still read here, assuming you speak French.  And the idea was in the air earlier than that… “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with,” Flann O’Brien writes in At Swim-Two-Birds, which sure enough has three beginnings and three endings, if you’re not too careful about how you define the concept.  But I’m not here to try to rescue the artistic purity of reader-driven-narrative from servitude in the brothels of capitalism by pointing out that “serious” intellectuals did it first.  I’m here to talk about the CYOA books themselves, which deserve to be remembered for their own merits.  (But before we leave the topic of brothels, let me just point out that there are apparently a LOT of “adult” CYOA titles out there.  I knew about the one I linked to from working in a bookstore, but while googling it I found out that there are, like, way, waaaaay more than I expected.  And while I don’t get the feeling that all of these are actually pornographic, they’re all selling themselves on a winking hint of sexuality coupled with a healthy (unhealthy?) ladle of nostalgia, sort of like a “Sexy Smurfette” Halloween costume.  Gross.  But then, the cover art on Escape From Fire Island is just perfect.  And I bet no other book has ever had, or ever will have, the Amazon tags “Champagne Toast,” “The Meat Rack,” “lifeguard station,” “zombie epidemic,” and “The Golden Girls,” making Escape From Fire Island another one for the ‘ol ‘Unsurpassed and Unsurpassable’ file.

So, the radical things about Choose Your Own Adventure books.  (Or at least apparently radical.  We’ll get back to that.)

  • First of all, although each book has a solitary beginning, they do have multiple endings, and in a way that surpasses anything Flann O’Brian came up with.  For all that At Swim-Two-Birds claims to have multiple endings, they appear in a fixed order, and even a perverse reader who purposely tackles them out of order will read one of them last, making that one the “real” ending.  CYOA books, on the other hand, may have dozens of endings spaced throughout the book, and each is an actual, definitive, end.  (Or not.  More on that later.)
  • Second, to increase universal appeal, the protagonist (that is, “You”) has no gender, no race, no religion, no sexual orientation (21st century erotic repackagings of the concept notwithstanding).  No political opinions, no particular skill set… a total blank slate.  I do seem to recall that the protagonist was usually described as a child (the books being marketed to children), but that’s about it.  Eat your heart out, The Man Without Qualities.
  • Third, the reader drives the action:  as the title of the series suggests, you get to choose how the story develops.  Just like you can choose whether or not to read the rest of this post.

But like I implied, all of these “radical” elements can be undermined. The last has been pretty well debunked by the more cerebral class of video-game critics.  If you’re asked a multiple choice question with only one answer, do you have a choice?  No.  How about only two answers, both planned out for you ahead of time?  Does the situation really change with three answers, or a dozen?  The illusion of choice becomes more and more elaborate, but it doesn’t ever become freedom:  a cage is a cage, no matter how large it is.  By the same token, while the unmarked “You” of the narration allows readers to insert themselves, there’s no room to try out other identities.  I mean, I could read The Cave Of Time while thinking of “You” as a Armenian bootblack, but it wouldn’t have any effect.  You’re never going to get a choice that says “If the smell of fresh leather triggers a flashback to your father’s workshop in Yerevan, turn to page 36.”  And as for the multiple endings, well…

As defined by the “rules” of the book, when you come across the words THE END you have no choice but to head all the way back to the beginning of the book and start again.  But in fact you did have a choice – when you came across a fork, you could fold down the page or stick your finger in the book to mark your place, so that if one branch of the decision tree proved fatal or boring, you could simply backtrack.  As a result, a bad ending was only rarely a “real” ending.  Even a moderately good one was only temporary.  So if the ending of the book simply as “the last page you read before you return it to your middle school library,” then there really was only one, just like there’s only one real ending to At Swim-Two-Birds.  I don’t know about you, but I read these books in search of the best ending, and only considered the book as “ended” when I found it.

That’s quite a statement, though, because it implies that the “real” ending of a book is defined by the reading habits of the audience.  And this brings up the more fundamental innovation of CYOA.  We read normal books to be entertained.  We read CYOA books to win. All the enjoyment we get along the way is just incidental to the triumph of securing the happy ending.  Even a real page turner of a book – by which I mean a book in which most of our enjoyment comes learning more about the plot – doesn’t give us the same sense of accomplishment, of winning, that I got as a child from locating the good end of a CYOA.  Furthermore, our reading habits can change.  If I were to go back and read one of them today, for instance (and I may or may not have recently done this — you decide!), I’d be a lot less caught up with finding the good ending, and a lot more interested in finding all the endings, i.e. finishing the entire book.   Which means that the “real” ending – using the definition of ending I gave above – would just be the ending that I got to last.  Depending on how the book is structured, the “real” ending might not even be an ending at all.  Sometimes there was more than one way to arrive at a given game-over, so my last thoughts before putting the book down might be something like “Ah, I see where this is going, after this I get eaten by the shark again.  Okay.”

So here’s a question for you:  who’s reading the book right?  Old Stokes or Young Stokes?  Earlier I mentioned the “rules” of the book, and while neither of us were really following them precisely, Young Stokes might be closer to the spirit of the thing.  Trying to “win” at the book isn’t perverse – it’s what you’re supposed to do.  You’re supposed to identify with the character… sadistically marching him/her into death after gruesome death just for the experience is more than a little ghoulish.   But I think Old Stokes is getting more out of the experience.  As a child, I was too focused on the end benefit.  I wanted so much to find a happy ending that I stopped caring about the process of reading the book. Sometimes it would get to the point where I would actually STOP READING the text of the pages, skipping directly to the choices at the bottom so that I could navigate through the book more quickly.  Sometimes I would flip through the book at random until I found the good end, just to satisfy my curiosity, but I still wouldn’t consider myself to have “finished” it until I could find my way on my own.  Navigating the decision tree was more important, by far, then the content of its branches.  And that might be a more severe violation of the “rules” of the book.  You are still meant to actually read the thing, aren’t you?

Or maybe the rules, like the ending, change according to the reader.  And this is where CYOA really shines as an alternative to classical narrative.  Think about a standard novel.  There are many ways to interpret it – that is, many things to get out of it – but there’s only one acceptable way to read it:  seriously, carefully, reverently.  And reading in this sense implies a few more things.  There’s a principal of ontological unity:  if you read halfway through a book before getting bored and stopping, then you haven’t really “read” the book, right?  There’s also a principal of aesthetic unity:  if you soldier through to the end out of sheer bloody-mindedness, then you’ve read it… but you didn’t really “like” the book, no matter how much you enjoyed the first half.  Right?  And there’s an implied moral duty to the author.  Reading the book halfassedly – taking the chapters out of order, skimming the parts you don’t like, doodling sarcastic comments in the margins, MST3K style – is usually thought of as some kind of betrayal of the author, or at the very least as extremely rude.  There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this – especially because the last one still applies even when the author is dead – but these are the unwritten rules of reading, and they’re as true for “daring” modern fiction as they are for the stodgiest 19th century literature.  And they apply just as well to commercial cheese:  when I was reading the Da Vinci code, I cheerfully slagged it off to anyone who’d listen to me complain, but I still read the whole thing, in order, from beginning to end.

They don’t apply to CYOA books, though.  Not because CYOA books offer some kind of radical freedom to the reader – like I said before, you don’t really control the narrative when all the choices are laid out for you – but because the new rules that you’re presented with are so arbitrary, so confining, that you begin to discard them the minute you begin to play the game.  There’s even one CYOA book, UFO 54-40, that lampshades this:  unlike most books in the series, it only has one ending, and what’s more the ending is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the book. (!) You can’t get there by following the rules:  either you skip to the page, or you don’t read it at all.

Now, the author was trying to make a point about thinking outside the box, telling you that you can’t win by following the rules.  The message I receive, though, is that  the whole idea of “winning” a book, of rules for reading, is meaningless.  You win at reading in that you enjoy it:  within this one limited corner of human experience, the only rule is the rule of pleasure.  So let’s go ahead and mark our place with a finger.  Let’s stop reading when the book gets dull.  Let’s write snarky comments in the margins.  Let’s imagine that the main character of a CYOA book is an Armenian bootblack.  We can even imagine that the main character of Hamlet is an Armenian bootblack if you’ve a mind to – it’s not my idea of a good time, but if it floats your boat I’m willing to play along. This doesn’t mean that dense literary tomes don’t have value, nor that ponderous analysis isn’t a valid form of enjoyment in its own right.  (The amount of completely unpaid time we all spend writing for this website, it had better damn well be a valid form of enjoyment.)

By the way, although Choose Your Own Adventure‘s little cultural moment has already come and gone, those books were more influential than you might think (or maybe just prescient).  The “branching trees” model has become absolutely standard for video game plots, although the mechanism for triggering one branch or another is rarely as simple as “turn to page twelve.”  And the model of reader experience created by CYOA is even more widespread in our culture – not the model they intended, where the reader navigates a series of linear narratives, but the model that readers actually followed, where you mark your place with your finger, flip around at random, and skim through the text itself on your way to the (sometimes unattainable) perfect end-benefit of your reading experience, only to suddenly look up and realize that four hours have passed.  I’m hoping I’ve constructed the metaphor well enough for you to see the parallel to the process of surfing the web.  After all, what is your browser history but an expertly managed stack of fingers marking your place?  What is a hyperlink but an instruction to turn to page 15 (or to DNS code, as the case may be).  And what is wikipedia but “Edit Your Own Encyclopedia?”

Which reminds me:  when they write that history of the 20th century literary avant-garde, I hope they pay enough attention to the Internet.


What do you do?

To read a deeply fascinating essay about the information structure of specific Choose Your Own Adventure books, turn to page 12 click here. (This essay is fantastic:  it’s full of insight, and the author managed – amazingly enough – to use the order of the story segments in the published books to deduce aspects of the authors’ creative processes.  His charts are jaw-droppingly beautiful.)

To read a hilarious, 4th-wall-shattering deconstruction of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, turn to page 23 download this pdf from the mad geniuses over at Kingdom Of Loathing, who know from 4th-wall-shattering deconstructions.  Their artwork is not particularly jaw-dropping, but it has its charm.

To purchase a copy of Pierre Bayard’s fantastic book-length essay How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which although I didn’t bring it up directly was definitely part of my thought process as I wrote this, turn to page 9 click this here amazon link so we can get our sweet two cents.

To post a comment, turn to page 11 just go ahead and post a comment.