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Stone age memes: Google my codex

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As far as I’m concerned, bibliophilia is idol-worship, but I’ve been having a lot of fun with the book memes on the Internet. There’s everything from annotating and commenting on the BBC’s Top 100 books, to listing your 12 favorites in Flickr with appropriate photographs, to the five most frustrating books on Biblical exegesis.

This week I participated in a meme that has you take the book that’s nearest to you when you get the message, and write down sentence 5 on page 56 as your Facebook status. Then people can guess what it’s from, make them into a story, add their own or whatever. I guess it’s just another “icebreaker” to get us to talk to each other when we have nothing to say, community building from scratch, as it were. This one, though, got me to thinking about computers and books and all the different things we do with books when we’re not using them to adjust the height of a table.

A great many scholars are bibliophiles, but not me. While I love to read, I don’t actually care much about the medium. The thing we call a book, or codex, is a recent invention and before that people read books on long scrolls, or wrote them down on wax or clay tablets. Machine readable is just the latest medium to me, and I could care less about reading books on paper.

I’ve always thought everything should have an index, not just reference books. I like to think back on different ideas as I read and I’m not that happy searching through the paper thing for what I want. I even teach my students this way of reading, so we can have 20 of us in a  room riffling pages and looking for an idea somebody brought up. It’s not that easy without an index. So when I recently discovered the text of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone online, unauthorized of course, I was grateful to have it for my Young Adult Fiction class, and having it online made it easier to search.

As an alternative to having the book on my computer,  I’ve been using Amazon.com as a search engine. It works pretty well. Amazon will have the book and you can only see a limited number of pages, but it will search the whole thing. If you have the book actually in your hand, you can look up the pages the items are on, and take it from there.

Speaking of taking it, I recently read Cory Doctorow’s Overclocked on my iPod, downloading it from his website, where he offers it for free under a Creative Commons license. I own a copy of the codex, and will be using it in class in the fall, when it will be required reading for all incoming freshmen at my University. It’s a fine collection of short stories in the science fiction genre, and Doctorow’s idea of what a book is clearly more fluid than most.

I do like to mark up my books, but you can do that on a computer. I don’t like to get books with anyone else’s writing on them. If they are interesting, they’re fine with me, but usually the things I find in second-hand books I get from Half.com are to my view inane, or wrong. My propensity for marking up books means I don’t like the idea of the Kindle, because you can only do limited note-taking on that, and one of the joys of a “real” computer (instead of a half-assed special use one) is that it will accommodate any length of comment.

Ever since I was a student, I loved the idea of scholia, the comments you find in the margins of ancient texts. They can be like elaborate discursive footnotes or simple one-word glosses on the meaning of the word. The same text can have scholia from multiple sources. The work you read then is enriched or enlivened by all those comments.

My hero has always been Servius, who wrote scholia for Vergil’s Aeneid. This is a wonderful and quite serious story about Aeneas, a hero from the Trojan War who voyages to Italy to found what turns out to be the Roman Empire. The scholiast, though, focuses on the doomed love between Aeneas and Carthaginian queen Dido. Now this is a version of the Aeneid quite different from anyone else’s: Servius spins the heroic epic as chicklit. His may be the first recorded opposition to the view that “A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop,” in Virginia Woolf‘s description.

I knew I wanted a Ph.D. the moment I got wind of that contrary style. I wanted to write a dissertation that played out in the footnotes, where the marginalia as it were had their own agenda, playing with what was going on in the text. I wanted to write Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but lacking the talent, I wrote an obscure analysis of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. All I can say for it is that it made me happy at the time…

The most famous marginalia in the world, of course, comprise the Talmud, which was perhaps the first instance of “poor man’s hypertext” in the world. That phrase from R. John Brockmann refers to the computer documentation book he wrote in which the marginalia contain definitions, organizational matter, competing views and other delightfully enriching material. I taught from Brockmann’s book for years, because it represented the web of connections I felt students needed to understand the material. I also like hypertext fiction because I’m not that in love with the continuous plot: as a reader of fiction I’m more about ideas than action.

And I like it when a story meanders all over the place: Ovid’s writing is a great favorite of mine. In the Metamorphoses, he uses so-called “slippery transitions”: just when you get into a story, it changes into a different story. Does he ever come back to the first one? Yes, and in surprising ways. Here for example, is Perseus in the middle of a great battle with Andromeda’s former suitor Phineus; he is in danger of death:

And then warlike Minerva came to shield
her brother with her aegis, giving him
fresh courage. Now there was an Indian
among the guests-a youth called Athis, one
who had been born in Ganges crystal stream;

(Metamorphoses V 43-47)

With “Ganges’ crystal stream,” we shift to an elaborate account of Athis’ parentage, his appearance, and his love life, all as Perseus smashes his face and crushes his skull. Then we’re back in the battle, as Perseus kills Athis’ lover, and sundry other folk. You either like that kind of storytelling or you don’t. I glory in it, as I am delighted by the modern linkages in hypertext stories.

The delights of hypertext are different from the joys of reading an action novel. As Anja Rau says in Tekka,

Hyperfictions may not be for the literary gourmet who likes to indulge in a piece of prose in the figurative bathtub. Hyperfictions are for the addict to whom the sight of the fridge is the promise of a bowl of mousse. Who cannot pass the candy-shop. You don’t read a gripping hyperfiction like a thrilling novel: preferably in one session. Instead, you return many times, sometimes after hours, sometimes after months, and the icon that sits patiently on your desktop soon teases as much as a wad of paper with the bookmark far to the left.

The trouble with hypertext, though, is that it makes readers nervous. You start to read the story and then you have to make choices: are you getting the “real story”? Is this what the author intended? How can you keep all those choices in your head? And how can you discuss the novel with others if they’ve followed a different path, a different novel? Readers aren’t used to thinking about the way every writer manipulates her readers, no matter what her chosen output medium. Hypertext makes you aware of the choices a reader makes, it lays bare the artifice of the medium, and that can annoy the uninitiated.

Over time, that problem will disappear, because who we are as consumers (and I use that word advisedly) of fiction is changing. Now, for many readers, books are commodities: how are you coming on that BBC list? How many have you read? Have you read all of Anthony Powell? Or Dostoevsky? Or Jodi Picault? Why waste your time reading something that takes many times as long as a “real” book?

But these days media are educating us to appreciate more complexity, and to be willing to spend more time exploring a story. This I think is at the heart of Steven Johnson‘s observation that today, TV shows have more story lines and movies like Memento are accustoming the general public to appreciate postmodern techniques. You wind up watching a show or film more times, replaying scenes, talking about them, thinking about them. As we learn to do this with our visual media, I think we get more comfortable with “multiple threading” in our literature as well.

In fact, we have been being trained to jump back and forth much better, from the time of Homer who is supposed to have invented the flashback. I bet when he first laid it on them, the ancient Greeks were like – “What’s he up to? I can’t follow this damned Odysseus story!” But they got used to it.

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