More importantly, they provide the reader with a context. I'm not just reading little text boxes, I'm exploring parts of the monster's body! I'm not just clicking on words, I'm exploring the contents of a graveyard!
-- Michael Pellauer, on Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl
I did not find that providing the reader with visual elements or trying to ground the text into some sort of real life analogy was the important part of the piece. When I was reading My Body, another of Jackson's pieces, i found the use of the initial map of the body fairly unimportant, and even a bit superfluous. Granted, it did give the reader an initial starting point, but I found myself, every once in a while trying to remember what body part I had started off reading.
I didn't particularly appreciate that break in my stream of consciousness.
Now, while I suppose it is not fair of me to blame the tendency of my thoughts to wander, I felt that the strength in the piece came not from the fact that I could "explore the ... body" but rather that I could explore the piece from the inside out. Each of the segments of the piece were crafted finely enough so that they could be read in the context of the entire body, or simply as stories by themselves. I got the feeling that I could read forever and never get to read everything.
The problems did arise when I would encounter a segment that I had read before. In reading the entire piece in one sitting, I found that I did not need to be reminded over and over again of the different body parts, the different stories, and that I would have much rather had the piece be infinitely deep so I could keep on reading and never encounter repetition.
On the other hand, if I had read the piece for long enough, and had become familiar enough with the work, then reading the segments over again might have come as less of an annoyance. Instead, I would have been able to explore more of the connections between the words, between the segments. Unfortunately, before getting to that point, the repeated segments were simply a hindrance to the otherwise smooth flow of the piece.
Of course there's always the back button.
I found that I was not looking forward to reading My Body. I didn't think I was going to enjoy it. I realized that I had to be in the right mindset for it. I had to be willing to put the time aside to just sit and read, just as I would any other piece of writing, and I had to be willing to examine the piece both as a whole and in pieces. And I had to be willing to ignore what I felt about hypertext writing as a genre. Just as all books are not not the same, neither are all pieces of hypertext. I just had to accept that.