Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Infinite Jest

The back matter

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“Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task,” Louis Menand wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker. “In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands.” Like most other aspects of writing, it can be all these things at once: mindless and an exercise of meticulous skill, mechanical and formally challenging. I’ve been working on the notes for Astounding for the last week and a half, and although I was initially dreading it, the task has turned out to be weirdly absorbing, in the way that any activity that requires repetitive motion but also continuous mild engagement can amount to a kind of hypnotism. The current draft has about two thousand notes, and I’m roughly three quarters of the way through. So far, the process has been relatively painless, although I’ve naturally tended to postpone the tricker ones for later, which means that I’ll end up with a big stack of problem cases to work through at the end. (My plan is to focus on notes exclusively for two weeks, then address the leftovers at odd moments until the book is due in December.) In the meantime, I’m spending hours every day organizing notes, which feels like a temporary career change. They live in their own Word file, like an independent work in themselves, and the fact that they’ll be bundled together as endnotes, rather than footnotes, encourages me to see them as a kind of bonus volume attached to the first, like a vestigial twin that clings to the book like a withered but still vigorous version of its larger sibling.

When you spend weeks at a time on your notes, you end up with strong opinions about how they should be presented. I don’t like numbered endnotes, mostly because the numeric superscripts disrupt the text, and it can frustrating to match them up with the back matter when you’re looking for one in particular. (When I read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I found myself distracted by his determination to provide a numbered footnote for seemingly every factual statement, from the date of the Industrial Revolution to the source of the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” and that’s just the first couple of pages. Part of the art of notation is knowing what information you can leave out, and no two writers will come to exactly the same conclusions.) I prefer the keyword system, in which notes are linked to their referent in the body of the book by the page number and a snippet of text. This can lead to a telegraphic, even poetic summary of the contents when you run your eye down the left margin of the page, as in the section of my book about L. Ron Hubbard in the early sixties: “Of course Scientology,” “If President Kennedy did grant me an audience,” “Things go well,” “[Hubbard] chases able people away,” “intellectual garbage,” “Some of [Hubbard’s] claims,” “It is carefully arranged,” “very space opera.” They don’t thrust themselves on your attention until you need them, but when you do, they’re right there. These days, it’s increasingly common for the notes to be provided online, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t be. But I hope that they’ll take their proper place at the end, where they’ll live unnoticed until readers realize that their book includes the original bonus feature.

The notion that endnotes can take on a life of their own is one that novelists from Nabokov to David Foster Wallace have brilliantly exploited. When reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. As D.T. Max recounts in his fascinating profile of Wallace:

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to [editor Michael] Pietsch…He explained that endnotes “allow…me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns…5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the endnotes physically shrink the size of Infinite Jest—simply because they’re set in smaller type—while also increasing how long it takes the diligent reader to finish it. Notes allow a writer to play games not just with space, but with time. (This is true even of the most boring kind of scholarly note, which amounts to a form of postponement, allowing readers to engage with it at their leisure, or even never.) In a more recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller offers a defense of notes in their proper place at the end of the book:

Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true…Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.

An index turns the book into an object that can be read across multiple dimensions, while notes are a set of tendrils that bind the text to the world, in Robert Frost’s words, “by countless silken ties of love and thought.” As Heller writes of his youthful job at an academic press: “My first responsibility there was proofreading the back matter of books…The tasks were modest, but those of us who carried them out felt that we were doing holy work. We were taking something intricate and powerful and giving it a final polish. I still believe in that refinement.” And so should we.

How Bill Gates invented the Internet

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Bill Gates

Note: My daughter is recovering from a stomach bug, so I’m taking the morning off. In the meantime, please enjoy this post, one of my favorites, which was originally published on April 1, 2013.

Over the last few days, I’ve been greedily reading the interviews in Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers, a seductive little volume that I recently picked up at my local thrift store after keeping an eye peeled for it for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between coding and other forms of creativity, and this particular book, which was published in 1989, is also fascinating for the glimpses it provides into how the future of computing once looked. Here, for instance, are a few select quotes from Bill Gates, in an interview conducted almost a quarter of a century ago:

We hope with the Internet you’ll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say “Hey, what hotels are around here?” And the program will tell you.

We really believe we’re going to have the Internet in every car and in every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to pan around and have it show you routes, and have it tell you about points of interest.

It’s pretty impressive, and no matter what you think of Gates as a person or businessman, there’s no doubt he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Here are a few more excerpts from the same interview:

The Internet is the technology we’re going to use to get personal computers into the home.

Some Internet applications sound like a fantasy. But how often is a new media invented? Almost never.

For anything that’s reference oriented, where you don’t just want to turn pages, but want to look up the information and manipulate it and see it in different ways, this electronic form is just far, far superior to most other forms.

The mix of skills required to do the world’s best Internet content is pretty intimidating, because it’s video, it’s audio, it’s programming, and it’s interactive. It’s hard, just like any other new media.

Bill Gates

And here’s the punchline: Gates isn’t talking about the Internet at all. For all of the quotes above, I’ve inserted the word “Internet” wherever Gates says “CD-ROM.” (I’ve also made a few other subtle edits. For instance, what Gates originally said was: “We really believe we’re going to have CD-ROM machines in every car and every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to stick that little disk in there and pan around…”) Of course, CD-ROM turned out to be one of the strangest byways in the history of technology, a format that looked like it might become a permanent art form for about five years, only to end up all but forgotten. And Gates wasn’t alone in misreading the signs. The fact that we interact with most of our content online is a fact that few visionaries of any kind could have predicted two decades ago, and it’s dated a lot of otherwise insightful science fiction and futurist speculation. Infinite Jest, for instance, is hugely perceptive about how we deal with entertainment and the media—except for the fact that all of the characters are still watching cartridges on television, with the latest titles delivered by mail.

But I’d prefer to focus on the details that Gates got right. He was wrong about the medium, but in terms of how users would interact with information and how it would alter every aspect of our lives, he was remarkably prescient. And there’s a lesson here for all of us. It’s impossible to predict how people are going to read and experience stories over the next few decades, and it’s likely that such novelties as digital books—or at least the devices we use to read them—are going to seem laughably dated in retrospect. But it’s safe to say that great content will remain essential, no matter what its delivery device might be. That’s true of novels, of movies, and of any other form of information or entertainment. As a writer, I’m working in a landscape that seems, on the surface, to be changing rapidly, as publishing companies consolidate, bookstore chains close, and physical books themselves seem increasingly endangered. But all any of us can do is continue to refine the skills that have managed to survive every change in media, even if the shape they take is something that no one, not even Bill Gates, can foresee.

Written by nevalalee

March 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

The cultural chalk circle

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Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity was the best movie I saw last year, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Gravity was pretty much the only movie I saw last year. Now, this isn’t entirely true—I caught Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and The Hobbit in theaters, and got around to watching a fair number of others at home—but it still marks a drastic drop from my old routine, in which I’d often see a new movie in theaters every week. I’ve noted before that having a baby daughter turned me overnight into a studio executive’s idea of the average moviegoer, who is only motivated to get out of the house for a sequel or a proven franchise, but I’m still shocked by how quickly the transformation took place. When you look at it in another light, though, it only brings my moviegoing habits, which were always something of an outlier, into line with the rest of my pop cultural life, which has long been growing more circumscribed. My house is crammed full of books, but I read embarrassingly little new fiction, and I buy maybe five or six new albums a year. And if I managed to stay a cinephile for comparatively longer, it only postponed the contraction of our cultural lives that takes place sooner or later for most of us, usually around the time that we start to have more things competing for our attention.

When you’re born, without knowing it, you’ve dropped a stake at a certain random point in a huge expanse of art and pop culture. The books you read, the music you hear, and the media you experience are all shaped by the tastes of your parents and the immediate community to which you belong, which enclose a subset of all the art available within an invisible chalk circle. Later, as you enter the wider world of works intended for people your age, you expand that circle outward into the books and movies that everyone around you seems to know, from Dr. Seuss to The Phantom Tollbooth. As time goes on, the circle continues to broaden, and to strike out into unexpected directions, and it’s in high school and college that it seems to reach its greatest circumference. It’s no mystery why: you’re young, unencumbered, but hungry for knowledge, and although you haven’t had a chance to differentiate your life significantly from those of your peers, you can treat art and literature as glimpses into other forms of human experience, or mirrors that reflect back some aspect of your own. It’s no accident that most people seem to spend more time listening to music in their late teens and early twenties than at any other point. You’ve got access to more influences than ever before—along with faster Internet connections, at least in my day—and you use the resources you have to start putting together a soundtrack for your own story.

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Later, though, the circle starts to contract. After graduating from college, many people stop reading books altogether, and the rest of us rarely have much time to explore beyond the table of new releases at Barnes & Noble. When you look at Pitchfork’s list of the top albums of the year, you’re lucky if you can recognize even a third of the names. If a new book or album gets sensational reviews, you’ll check it out, but for the most part, you stick to a handful of old stalwarts, which means that you always make a point of picking up the new Radiohead, even if you only play The King of Limbs a couple of times. Once again, the reasoning here isn’t hard to see. You’ve got a job; you’ve got social obligations; maybe you’ve started to raise a family; and the gaps in your life that you used to fill up with art are occupied by life itself. One by one, the babies get thrown out of the sleigh, and although you don’t miss some of them as much as you expected, you cling to others for as long as you can. For me, a movie house has always been a special place of magic, and I made pilgrimages to that temple on a weekly basis, so its not surprising that I only gave it up when my life had already changed in empathic ways of its own.

But as Harry Lime says in The Third Man, it’s not that awful. Television, for instance, has slowly expanded to become a larger part of my cultural awareness—as it was when I was growing up, before contracting in college and immediately thereafter—and although this isn’t a new pattern in American lives, I’ve been lucky enough to have it coincide with what everyone agrees is a golden age for the medium as a whole. I’m slowly working my way back around to music, in an indirect fashion, courtesy of my ukelele and a new record player, which allows me to rediscover albums that aren’t readily available anywhere else. Reading is still a problem, and while I still get through a vast amount of nonfiction, usually for one writing project or another, my personal consumption of fiction for the last year has been limited to a few John D. MacDonald novels, a smattering of short stories, and the first third of Infinite Jest. Still, I hold out hope that it gets better from here. My circle of culture is smaller than before, and it continues to be recentered, but for most of us, that’s just the way it works. And although the outer limits of that chalk circle grow fainter with time, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still there.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

Posted in Books, Movies

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Making it long

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In Search of Lost Time

Along with giving up movies and music, another consequence of becoming a new father is that I’ve found it increasingly hard to read long novels. Earlier this year, I started Infinite Jest for the first time, but I trailed off after a few hundred pages, not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I liked it a lot—but because it was becoming all but impossible for me to carve adequate reading time out of the limited hours in the day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction, mostly for research, and a few shorter novels on the order of John D. MacDonald, but when I look at some of the larger volumes on my bookshelf, I feel a little daunted. I’m not sure when I’m going to have time for Life: A User’s Manual or The Tunnel or The Recognitions or any of the other big novels I bought years ago in full intention of reading them eventually. And although it’s possible that this year will turn out to be a fluke, it’s more likely that my reading life, like so many other things, has undergone a decisive shift. (Even my old trick of reading a big book on vacation may no longer work: it’s hard to balance Underworld in your hands when there’s also a baby strapped to your chest.)

Which is a shame, because I love big novels. This may sound strange coming from a writer who constantly preaches the values of cutting, but I can only report the facts: of the ten favorite novels I discussed here recently, fully half of them—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Gravity’s Rainbow, It, Foucault’s Pendulum—are enormous by any standard. I enjoy long novels for many of the same reasons it’s hard for me to read them these days: their sheer size forces you to give up a significant chunk of your life, and the psychic space they occupy can change the way you think, at least temporarily. When I first read Proust, there were moments when I felt that the events of the novel were objectively more real than anything I was doing at the time, which is something I suspect most readers of big books have experienced. Reading an enormous novel can start to feel like a second job, or an uncredited college class, or a stranger living in your house, especially once you’re been at it for a while. I spent something like a decade picking at The Gold-Bug Variations before finally finishing it, and even though I have mixed feelings about the novel itself, the emotions it evokes are still vivid, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.

Lawrence of Arabia

And length can affect the content of the novel itself in unexpected ways. Edward Mendelson, in his famous essay on encyclopedic narratives, notes that many of these big, insane books—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick—deal with literal or figurative giants, as if the novel is conducting a narrative battle with its own bulk, like Don Quixote fighting the windmill. This also runs in the opposite direction: a subject like a white whale deserves a whale of a novel. Even in books that tackle more intimate themes, length can be a statement or strategy in itself. I’ve noted before that In Search of Lost Time is both a modern version of The Thousand and One Nights and a novelette that expands itself infinitely in all directions, like a Japanese paper flower dropped in water, and it needs to unfold over multiple volumes: we might be able to abridge Dumas or Hugo, but an abridged version of Proust would be a contradiction in terms. Its length isn’t just a consequence of a longer series of events or a more complicated story, but a philosophy of life, or of reading, that can only find its full expression in the span of pages that a long novel provides.

We find much the same thing in other works of art, particularly movies. William Goldman says that if you can’t tell a story in an hour and fifty minutes, you’d better be David Lean, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to get Lawrence of Arabia or Ryan’s Daughter. Really long movies tend toward the grandiose, as if its ambitions were expanding simultaneously in space and time, but certain stories, regardless of scale, need that room to breathe: I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of Seven Samurai or Barry Lyndon or Yi Yi. And there’s something about a long movie that encourages a different kind of contemplation. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the six-hour Little Dorrit:

Very long films can create a life of their own. We lose our moorings. We don’t know exactly where we stand within the narrative, and so we can’t guess what will happen next. People appear and reappear, grow older and die, and we accept the rhythm of the story rather than requiring it to be speeded up.

Hence a movie like Shoah, whose nine-hour runtime becomes a part of its message: its quiet, systematic accumulation of detail begins to feel like the only valid response to the monstrousness of the story it tells. Length, at its best, can represent a vision of the world, and it can feel as big as the world itself—as long as we give it the attention it deserves.

Tomorrow: Keeping it short.

The edge of the canvas

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The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

How Bill Gates invented the Internet

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Bill Gates

Over the last few days, I’ve been greedily reading the interviews in Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers, a wonderful volume that I picked up last week at my neighborhood thrift store after keeping an eye out for it for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the parallels between coding and other forms of creativity, but the book, which was published in 1989, is also fascinating for the glimpses it provides into how the future of computing once looked. Here, for instance, are a few quotes from Bill Gates, in an interview conducted almost a quarter of a century ago:

We hope with the Internet you’ll be able to look at a map of the United States, point somewhere, click, zoom in and say “Hey, what hotels are around here?” And the program will tell you.

We really believe we’re going to have the Internet in every car and in every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to pan around and have it show you routes, and have it tell you about points of interest.

It’s pretty impressive, and no matter what you think of Gates as a person or businessman, there’s no doubt he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Here are a few more excerpts from the same interview:

The Internet is the technology we’re going to use to get personal computers into the home.

Some Internet applications sound like a fantasy. But how often is a new media invented? Almost never.

For anything that’s reference oriented, where you don’t just want to turn pages, but want to look up the information and manipulate it and see it in different ways, this electronic form is just far, far superior to most other forms.

The mix of skills required to do the world’s best Internet content is pretty intimidating, because it’s video, it’s audio, it’s programming, and it’s interactive. It’s hard, just like any other new media.

Bill Gates

And here’s the punchline: Gates isn’t talking about the Internet at all. For all of the quotes above, I’ve inserted the word “Internet” wherever Gates says “CD-ROM.” (I’ve also made a few other subtle edits. For instance, what Gates originally said was: “We really believe we’re going to have CD-ROM machines in every car and every house. And when you go to a new area of the country, you’re going to stick that little disk in there and pan around…”) Of course, CD-ROM turned out to be one of the strangest byways in the history of technology, a format that looked like it might become a permanent art form for about five years, only to be completely forgotten. And Gates wasn’t alone. The fact that we interact with most of our content online is a fact that very few visionaries of any kind could have predicted two decades ago, and it’s dated a lot of otherwise insightful science fiction and futurist speculation. Infinite Jest, for instance, is hugely perceptive about how we deal with entertainment and the media—except for the fact that all of the characters are still watching cartridges on television, with the latest titles delivered by mail.

But I’d prefer to focus on the details that Gates got right. He was wrong about the medium, but in terms of how users would interact with information, and how it would change every aspect of our lives, he was remarkably prescient. And there’s a lesson here for all of us. It’s impossible to predict how people are going to read and experience stories over the next few decades, and it’s likely that such novelties as electronic books—or at least the devices we use to read them—are going to seem laughably dated in retrospect. But it’s safe to say that great content will remain essential, no matter what its delivery device might be. That’s true of novels, of movies, and of any other form of information or entertainment. As a writer, I’m working in a landscape that seems, on the surface, to be changing rapidly, as publishing companies consolidate, bookstore chains close, and physical books themselves seem increasingly endangered. And all any of us can do is continue to refine the skills that have managed to survive every change in media, even if the shape they take is something that none of us, not even Bill Gates, can foresee.

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2013 at 9:41 am

Turning pages both ways

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Infinite Jest

A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.

Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.

In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.

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