Thresholds of the Edge: Rethinking the Concepts of Books and Access in the Age of the Digital Paratext

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In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1987; English translation, 1997), Gérard Genette provided scholars with the seminal concept of paratext: functional elements of the book (such as covers, title pages, illustrations, footnotes, etc.) that help to fulfill the text’s destiny (p. 408) by making it present for the reader (p. 1).

Today, the book often escapes the boundaries of the tangible object of Genette’s study, as is the case with The Unknown – The Original Great American Hypertext Novel. This born-digital collaborative work, so far from Genette’s perception and yet so suited to his views, is a goldmine of thresholds, namely through the source code, which the reader is invited to explore in parallel with the content and navigation provided in the published pages (Gillespie et al., 1999).

This paper combines outlooks from two disciplines, held together by a shared interest in the study of digital culture. The field of information studies provides a qualitative content analysis of the creators’ information-sharing practices and outlines issues of access and retrieval; the literary studies field offers a textual analysis, relating the paratext to the text in order to determine whether the former fulfills what Genette called its “literary function”.

Together, these perspectives reveal how measuring this work against Genette’s framework paves the way for an interdisciplinary study of digital culture. Here, as the concept of book hovers so near the edge it might yet fall over, the paratext may truly be the threshold we need to step inside its new, parallel, and virtual reality.

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Patricia Tomaszek