Making a note of it

>> Thursday, June 10, 2010

Laura Miller is still at it. Good grief.

Some readers may recall that last month I ran a post critical of Miller's Salon review/embrace of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, a book everybody seems to be talking about although I don't know if anyone is actually reading it. One of Miller's cutesy little touches at the end of her article was to dump what would have been textual hyperlinks onto the end of the article instead of actually including them where they were relevant, a practice she's continued. She does this, evidently, because there are studies and anecdotal evidence suggesting hyperlinks are a distraction and make it hard for readers to focus on the text.


No, I mean, Miller and the studies and the anecdotes she's relying on may all be correct, but it doesn't make her right. I realize that including hyperlinks may distract you from what I'm saying in a paragraph if you can't resist the temptation to immediately left-click on the link, or if you know enough to right-click and open in a new tab or window but can't resist the temptation to read the new tab or window first, or if you just can't resist waving your mouse pointer over the link to see where it goes or what the alt-text is, or, or, or.... All of that is something I'm happy to concede.

The problem, however, is that Miller has no actual point: reading a text is not necessarily an easy or linear or natural task for a reader, and writing isn't a linear task for an author, either. Miller seems to think a linkless text is somehow a sign of better writing, or that good writing is diminished by the use of links:

A sentence that's written to include hyperlinks won't necessarily make as much sense without them. You write differently when you know you can't dodge explaining yourself by fobbing the task off on someone more eloquent or better informed. You have to express what you want to say more completely, and you have to think harder about what information ought to be included and what's merely peripheral. (Knowing what to leave out is as important to writing well as what you include.) Furthermore, I've found that if I want to make my paragraph of end links meaningful, I need to include some additional text to explain what the source pages are and why the reader might find them valuable.

All of this adds up to more work for the writer. However, I'd argue that this work is precisely what a nonfiction writer is supposed to do. Our job is to collect and assimilate information about a particular subject, come to some conclusions and put all of this into a coherent linear form so that it can be communicated to other people. That's the service we provide. All of us may now swim in a vast ocean of interlocking data nuggets, but people can still only read one word at a time, and putting the best words (and the best ideas) in the best order remains the essence of the writer's craft.

Let me point out what I'd think would be an obvious flaw to any reader even remotely familiar with academic writing or the work of David Foster Wallace: the fact that text is a linear format while thought--written or read--is nonlinear forced writers to invent hypertext for the page ages ago. They're called footnotes or endnotes, depending on whether they appear at the bottom of a page or the end of the text, and might consist merely of a symbol (e.g. an asterisk) and accompanying note or a list of numbered break-outs or, depending on your preferred manual of style, an entire system of parenthetical-text-and-accompanying-source-or-explanation manifested at the end of the work.

There are assorted ways a reader might grapple with this "inconvenience to readers who are prodded to check out how clever the writer is" (as Miller quotes Sarah Hepola as saying). Some readers ignore notes altogether. Some readers read with a finger or bookmark in place at the end of a book and go back and forth (DFW's Infinite Jest was a two-bookmark book for me). Some readers read all of the notes in one burst after they're done with the meat. There are probably some other methods out there, as it seems like this is an area in which a reader learns what method(s) works best for himself or herself.

At the moment, my reading list includes Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, the famed former prosecutor's mammoth disquisition on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I've been reading this book for a couple of years, actually, mostly because it's too heavy to take to lunch and I've had other things I've wanted to read in the meantime, not because there's anything that's hard to focus on. Now, this book happens to ship with a CD-ROM containing two PDF files: one PDF file contains Bugliosi's endnotes and the other contains his citations, and these I've copied to my netbook and I do sometimes read Bugliosi's endnotes at lunch when I have the netbook with me; had Bugliosi included these documents as printed text, History (already the size of a respectable dictionary) would have been three times its present size and therefore more expensive for the publisher to print, the reader to buy, and would have proportions more suited to building a schoolhouse or bunker than to holding on one's chest with one hand in bed (the other hand being necessary for a suitable nightcap). Is Bugliosi's tome unfocused because he had additional materials that he wanted to make available although they didn't fit into the main thread of the primary text? No. Furthermore, was Bugliosi wrong to want to include references to every single primary and secondary source he relied upon in writing a book on a controversial subject in which most works have been poorly researched or have relied upon hearsay, misinformation and innuendo? Absolutely not.

I might add, as a reader, I feel less-inconvenienced and more that I managed to get at least two books for the price of one alongside one of the most comprehensive bibliographies ever assembled on the JFK assassination. Score!

I'm also reading a translation of several of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short stories; translator Jay Rubin helpfully offers endnotes explaining various points of history, culture, language, calligraphy (like many Asian authors, Akutagawa sometimes took advantage of the structure of Japanese/Chinese characters to convey secondary meanings), the art of translation, etc. This is one where my bookmark relocates itself from my starting point to the section in the back containing the notes for the story I'm reading. Inconvenient? Mildly and hardly at the same time--while I minored in Asian Studies in college, that was long ago and there is much I've forgotten or never learned (including Japanese), and it's far less distracting to thumb to the back to learn who a minor Tokugawa official was or how a character's name is really a pun (to offer a pair of f'r'instances) than to read through the story and miss a point or be lost at sea. This is an example of an annotated text in which I read a sentence or paragraph, thumb back to the note, thumb back to the story and re-read the sentence or paragraph with the new information. And it's really not that difficult, honest.

Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic Of Suffering, a book about how death was handled during the American Civil War, which I'm reading partly because I've been grappling with trying to write a novel about Civil War zombies (yes, I know it's been done--my version is going to better, nyah), is also annotated, but I've mostly skimmed past them--they're reference notes, not comment notes, and not too vital to me for now. I'll probably skim through them when I'm done with the text itself and make sure I didn't miss anything.

There's not a substantial difference between hyperlinks and annotations in a text; or, if there is, it's that HTML allows you to embed an annotation within the body of the text without a nubbin at the end of a word or sentence and that the annotation potentially takes you directly to the source (that is, instead of reading a footnote attributing a thought to Mr. Smith's fine meditation on the medieval antecedents of the doohickey which you must take on faith or drive to the library to double-check, you may immediately jump to Mr. Smith's work and read it or purchase it on the fly if you wish). With regard to the latter point, it might be noted that the immediacy of the link not only offers instant gratification, but instant truth: whereas certain unscrupulous authors (in any medium) might cite a nonexistent source or deliberately mischaracterize an authority, to do so with an HTML link is a suicidal act of chutzpah that invites instant unmasking (unbelievably, I've seen online frauds do this very thing, as I'm sure you have as well). But as far as "shallowness" or "ease of reading" goes, I'm not seeing it.

And Ms. Miller surely isn't about to castigate annotated works, is she? She surely doesn't mean to suggest that a footnoted work of nonfiction or fiction is inferior to one that doesn't "show its work," is she?

In my mind, I come back to one of my favorite writers, the poor, late David Foster Wallace. One of Wallace's masterpieces, a work frequently cited at his death as the thing of his you must read, was his (in)famous nonfiction essay for Gourmet, "Consider The Lobster." Wallace was hired by the magazine--a food-porn sort of publication--to report on the Maine Lobster Festival; once there, the sensitive, thoughtful writer found himself troubled with unanswerable questions about the ethics of eating, and wrote a provocative, questing, moving piece. Do lobsters feel? Is it okay to eat them if they do? Is it okay to eat them if they don't? How do we know what goes on in the head of any other creature? Unlike many shallower writers, Foster avoided writing a polemic, mainly asking the troubling questions and ruminating on them. It definitely wasn't what Gourmet asked for or what they normally would run, but to the magazine's credit they asked for few changes and ran the piece almost entirely as it was written, in spite of the grief they correctly anticipated getting from readers who didn't want to question their gustatory habits at all.

And, like most of DFW's work, it's a heavily-footnoted piece. There are footnotes describing things that Foster thought were too-interesting to leave out but too-tangential to include in the main body of the text. There are footnotes citing people he talked to for the essay. There are footnotes where DFW goes back to something he wrote and argues against himself over it (as, I think, any thoughtful person facing a difficult question does). There are parallel stories and side-trips. And so forth. Anybody who would imply that these notes are the result of one of the most-brilliant writers of the turn-of-the-millennium engaging in the literary equivalent of "dumping a bunch of raw ingredients on the table [as] a substitute for cooking someone a meal" is an utter ass.

Of course, I imagine Miller would rejoin that DFW's notes are still his words, as opposed to what I did two paragraphs ago when I linked to Wallace's original essay, allowing a reader to visit DFW's essay (something I hope readers will do, and if they read all of "Consider The Lobster" and then don't bother coming back to this blog, I'd still consider that a win). But then Miller's argument wasn't that nuanced to start with: she would appear to be against hyperlinks generally, even ones similar to, say, Slate's sidebars (a link going to a parenthetical note; they've since mostly replaced these with little inline symbols that utilize hovertext). Nor, again, is it clear to me that there's a meaningful difference between, say, "One of Wallace's masterpieces, a work frequently cited at his death as the thing of his you must read, was his (in)famous nonfiction essay for Gourmet, "Consider The Lobster," and, "One of Wallace's masterpieces, a work frequently cited at his death as the thing of his you must read, was his (in)famous nonfiction essay for Gourmet, "Consider The Lobster."1 Surely the difference between those two modes is modest, at most.

And while I've made use of footnotes in this blog before, I've thought about setting up a second page to hyperlink-ize them instead; the main reason I haven't has been the trouble, frankly. But the beauty of the hyperlinks (going back to the HyperCard days2) has always been that it allows a writer to more-seamlessly integrate material that otherwise would have to be shunted off to a separate section.

I can nearly comprehend Miller's reservations about online writing; what I can't really abide is her smug superiority, especially when she backs it up with points that are sort of stupidly oblivious to her apparent area of expertise. I mean, why on Earth harp on hyperlinks when they merely offer digital analogues to forms of metatext that go back at least as far as the Talmud (there, by the way, is literary pedigree for you), including an analogue to established forms of metatext that millions of students, academics, scientists, doctors and laypeople read every day? This I don't get.

Miller closes with this nugget:

My little experiment [in infodumping at the bottom of the page because I'm too vain and dizzy to use established web protocols]3 may not last. But I'd still recommend it as an exercise to any writer who's become accustomed to the ease of studding his or her work with hyperlinks.4 Doing without them forces you to think harder about how important certain chunks of information are, whether that reference is as cool or funny as you think it is and just how much you're contributing to the conversation.

Setting aside the again-smug tone (yes, how much are you contributing to the conversation?), one would hope writers were doing all of these things without resorting to an irritating gimmick "experiment." Hoping that you're contributing to the net intellectual mass and being cool and funny and informative isn't a matter of whether your post is a linkfest--it's a matter of whether your writing is any good at all.

1Wallace, David Foster. "Consider The Lobster." August 2004. 9 June 2010 <>

2And while we're talking about hypertext and footnotes, here's a footnote about hypertext to make another point about hyperlinks that seems to be passing Miller by. Consider the clause this note goes back to: "going back to the HyperCard days." There are almost certainly two kinds of readers here as far as that comment is concerned: readers who know what HyperCard was (whether they used it or not; coming up mostly in the PCverse, I never used it myself, though I knew of it) and people who have no idea what I was saying when I said "HyperCard."

Those in the first group don't need an explanation and that link wasn't for them. They probably assumed as much and skipped past it, or waved their mouse pointer over it and said, "Whatever."

Those in the second group can use the link or not as they see fit. If they want an explanation, there it is. If they don't care, well, there it still is, but they're welcome to forget about it.

It is possible, from her article, that Miller thinks I'd be showing more skill and flair if, instead of linking to a Wikipedia article, I went ahead and wrote something like, "back to the HyperCard days (HyperCard was a program that allowed authors to create hypertext links between various data-handling virtual 'cards')." Of course, aside from the fact that this is essentially everything I know about HyperCard, and the fact that all my readers who know HyperCard either just huffed "I know that" or were distracted by some minor inaccuracy in my characterization, there's also the fact that that parenthesis is unwieldy and mostly irrelevant to the point I was making in the paragraph.

As is this footnote, really.

Which is the point in having it. Per Miller's apparent theory of writing and/or possible hypothetical rejoinder to my earlier point re: David Foster Wallace, I have proffered a footnote about an incidental matter that uses my own words in a separate section of the piece to explain a reference that was completely and thoroughly covered by an <a href=> tag. Weren't you happier with just the embedded link?

3As bracketed editorial contextual explanations go, this one may be a little... expansive.

4Also, you know what? I don't know how the writers do it at Salon, but when I want to insert a link, I have to do one of two things: I have to either click the little globey-chain icon in the Blogger interface and cut'n'paste my link into the dialogue box which subsequently opens or I have to type an "a href=" bracket into the text--which, ironically, I generally find to be quicker. Now, this certainly isn't hard in the way calculus or removing a stump from your yard are hard, but it's not exactly something done with "ease." It requires some to-ing-and-fro-ing and knowing a modest amount of HTML coding and checking the link to make sure the right item was copied from the clipboard and doing a preview to make sure I closed the link, and... well... point is, it's certainly enough effort that I don't do it without thinking about it and I don't imagine anyone else does, either, and there are certainly times I wish I didn't have to include a link but it seems like it's inviting more trouble not to. That's all.


Jim Wright Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 10:09:00 AM EDT  

Hoping that you're contributing to the net intellectual mass and being cool and funny and informative isn't a matter of whether your post is a linkfest--it's a matter of whether your writing is any good at all.


timb111 Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 4:21:00 PM EDT  

I read the David Foster Wallace article, including the endnotes. I think that is the first time I've read anything by him. Very nicely written.

Two points you don't bring up:
1.) Notes on notes, Wallace does this in the article.
2.) Note on graphical novels: Should they be illustrated?

Nathan Friday, June 11, 2010 at 10:22:00 AM EDT  

I actually have a much easier time dealing with links in text than with footnotes and the like. If it's a link, I may look at it when I first encounter it, or I may look after reading the entire piece. Either way, I don't have any issues when I return to the original piece. (And if I'm going to look at links after finishing the original piece, I'm just scrolling back up to the conveniently underlined -- different colored -- spot in the text to find it.)

When reading something with footnotes, I almost never refer to the footnotes until after finishing the whole thing. And by that time, I've forgotten what each particular footnote is intended to illuminate, so I have to scroll back up and find the asterisk -- which is nowhere as easy to find as that visually distinctive hyperlink in the first example.

Add to that the fact that I'm old and spent years getting used to dealing with footnotes before I ever saw a hyperlink. Methinks the youngsters aren't particularly distracted by links.

Seth Friday, June 11, 2010 at 3:08:00 PM EDT  

Nathan's right on -- hyperlinks are far less distracting than footnotes, which force you, if they're to be at all useful, to go to the bottom/end and then scroll your ass back up again. They're actually less useful online than in a book, where you can at least adopt the "two-bookmark" technique.

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