David Foster Wallace and the Future of Books/Radio

There’s been a lot of commentary online about the new David Foster Wallace article in The Atlantic. Dan Visel at if:book is interested in the design of the article and how the online version compares. Scott Esposito has two posts on the subject, one responding to the if:book post and the other commenting on the article itself. There are now five trackbacks to the original if:book post, most of them commenting on how The Atlantic’s article mimics hyperlinking.

If you haven’t read the article (which, of course, requires a subscription), you should at least take a look at if:book’s screen shot of the PDF version of the article. All the excitement centers around the mag’s clever formatting of footnotes, which are color-coded and placed to the side of the text rather than at the bottom of the page. Visel calls them “hyperlinks in print,” and most of the other commenters agree. I’m not so sure they qualify as true hyperlinks. A hyperlink takes you to a new place, possibly opening up a new world. With hyperlinks, in many cases, the digression becomes the text, and readers never even return to the “original.” (Perhaps some of my readers have already done this!) A footnote, by contrast, is more like an extended parenthetical expression. When the reader is done with the footnote, there is no place to go but back to the original. Since Wallace tends to use so many footnotes, the designer simply sought a way to bring them closer to the text — and succeeded, brilliantly.

Even in the HTML version of the article, the hyperlinks don’t function in the usual way, but instead bring up a small pop-up, right next to the article, so the reader can quickly read it and move back to the main text. I think the format is more effective in the original print article. The color-coding helps both in finding the relevant note and returning to the main text. It doesn’t feel at all “gimmicky,” but instead serves the content of the article.

The HTML version loses something; it’s annoying to click on each link, and annoying to have to close the pop-up every time you want to return to the main text. A better treatment might have been a mouse-over — the kind that is used for menus on so many Web sites these days — so no extra mousing is necessary to close the window: as soon as you mouse away, the text is gone.

The PDF is worst of all: as Disel notes, it’s formatted for print, vertically, and the colors are washed out, making the color-coding less effective than it is in print or online.

But I was most surprised that no one mentioned the interplay of the article’s content and its form: the article is about conservative talk radio, offering an often fascinating glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes of a typical show. The web of information that goes into creating a “linear” radio broadcast is more like the Internet itself than Wallace’s old-media reporting on it. There’s something incredibly new media about the way radio works: it pulls out information from the Internet, from TV, from other radio broadcasts, then streams it out to users, who participate in the medium as it’s created.

The link between these millions of drivers, sitting in their cars listening to the incessant feed of information spewed out by radio hosts, able to literally dial in and change the information with their cell phones, to me is much more like hypermedia than 23 pages of text, however elegantly formatted.

The story about radio personality John Ziegler preparing for the O.J. 10th anniversary episode is most enlightening. The staff spends hours preparing for an analysis of Katie Couric’s televised interview with O.J., integrating last-minute TiVo’d quotes from the TV show with print, Internet, and radio sources for his live broadcast only moments later. Ziegler is obsessed with the O.J. case and rants incessantly about Couric’s softball interview. But one of the “hyperlinked” footnotes shows how interactive radio really is:

All of this John Ziegler will and does say on his program–although what no one in the prep room can know is that a second-hour Airwatch flash on the imminent death of Ronald W. Reagan will cut short Mr. Z.’s analysis and require a total, on-the-fly change of both subject and mood.

Unlike Wallace’s old-media article, which reports on events occuring nearly a year ago, Ziegler’s broadcast must adapt in real-time to events in the real world. Wallace spends three pages detailing the elaborate preparations for one night’s broadcast, much of which Ziegler has to throw out on a moment’s notice when other events intervene.

The Wallace article is good, and the asides are effectively incorporated into the story, but as an example of new-media journalism, it’s an effective imitation at best. The real stuff is being done live, every day, on radio. You may not like it — and I know I don’t — but that’s the truth.

UPDATE: Good follow-up post on Conversational Reading.

And John Ziegler has a link to the full PDF of the Atlantic article on his site.

Update 4/7: Hello, cursor.org readers. I’ve reopened the discussion on this article, just for you. And, as you already know, the ziegler link to the full PDF is now down again.

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8 Responses to David Foster Wallace and the Future of Books/Radio

  1. Anne says:

    Judging by the screenshot, it looks like they just doctored the comments feature of Word. It’s an odd feature & fun to play with, but it’s not hypertext. (I may like it better than hypertext in the end, but it also seems to me to owe a lot to the practice of rubrics from the very early days of printing–wherein printers would add little reading aids and other orienting comments to the margins: a very OLD technology, not a new one.) (Coleridge revived this briefly in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”) The mouse-over idea (a technical term?) is best–very nice and truly screen-dependent in an unobtrusive and helpful way.

    While I admire the ingenuity of sites like the hypertext Waste Land, they are so visually cluttered as to be impossible to read. A mouseover annotated text, however: you’ve got me salivating!

  2. dave says:

    Anne: I think it’s a little more sophisticated than a doctored Word file, but I agree, it’s not revolutionary. You have to see the physical magazine to get a real feel for how it works–it’s definitely a nice way to handle notes. I’d love it if Word could easily produce something as nice as the Atlantic article.

    Back when I owned a Web design business, we always called them “mouse-overs.” I’ve also heard them called “hovers” or “rollovers.”

  3. Michael says:

    Footnotes surrounding the text on the page? Wasn’t this hypertext model discovered
    hundreds of years ago in the design of a page of Talmud?

  4. dave says:

    Michael, I’m not familiar with how the Talmud was formatted, but I do think the color-coding of the notes is a very effective and unusual way of incorporating a lot of notes but keeping them readable and not distracting from the text.

    Another classic example of a “hypertext” is a concordance, which certainly predates the Internet.

    One of my favorite pre-internet “hypertexts” was the Social Science Citation Index, which kept track of all the journal articles that cited a given article. Sort of the reverse of a footnote, and now duplicated (a bit clunkily) in Google Scholar.

  5. Anonymous says:
  6. dave says:

    Okay, comments are closed again.

  7. Pingback: Ruminate » Blog Archive » Print, Footnotes, Hypertextuality

  8. Pingback: Abject Learning » Blog Archive » Is this the future of print?

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