Why Marginalia?

Wallace Marginalia
David Foster Wallace’s marginalia | Source: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Today, I’d like to pose a simple question, and give my opinion on something that I’ve struggled with as a reader for a while now: why write in the margins? Why do many readers mark up, star, or pose questions to authors while reading?

While reading today, I had a simple, yet [I think] profound insight into the purpose of marginalia: the reason we take notes while reading and mark up books is to have a psychic dialogue with the author. For active readers who engage with the author’s work, marginalia becomes more important than the reading itself. This is why it can be such a moving reading experience to read with pen in hand and notebook at the side. As readers, we prod the text to do more and be more, and when the text wows us, or disappoints, we want to respond to that.

I’ve written about this topic before, and on one level, understanding marginalia is the reason I started this blog.

When it comes to e-books and other digital technology, the reading experience needs to make our marginal conversations with the text easier and even more fluid. E-books used to provide a terrible reading experience because of this reason. They are starting to improve: I can type a note in the margin, highlight, and upload these to “the cloud,” but I can’t just grab a pen and write what I want, where I want it: over the text, in the “real” margin, or doodle/scribble random stuff.

I want to know what you, as a reader or as an author, think about this. Thoughts? Comment, like, and share!

An approach to finding sanity in the digital age

I have mentioned previously on this blog that I am an avid reader of the technology site The Verge. One of the site’s editors, Paul Miller, recently began a new project to completely remove himself from the internet for a year. As an editor for a major technology site, this is a major undertaking, and it’s one that he has showcased through a series of articles. (By the way, his articles are all written offline and submitted via flash drive, so even though he’s not on the internet, he isn’t completely removed, technologically.)

Although this experiment began only a few weeks ago, Miller has shown that it is possible to find substance in a disconnected world. In his series of articles about the subject, Miller has made it clear that the purpose of this experiment is to see if the connected world really provides connection with others: “By separating myself from the constant connectivity, I can see which aspects are truly valuable, which are distractions for me, and which parts are corrupting my very soul.” His hope, it seems, is to rediscover what is truly valuable in his life and on the internet.

In his most recent article, “Offline: Ghost Limbs,” Miller explains how the addiction of checking his phone constantly has been replaced with more interaction with others:

During my week without a phone, and in my ensuing weeks after that moment of clarity, I’ve been talking to a lot more people I don’t know, and talking a lot more to the people I do know. Ever since I’ve owned a phone I’ve been honing a studious, “I better check this to make sure everybody’s okay and then I can get back to being popular” expression at parties and bars. It excuses me from large chunks of an evening, and keeps me comfortably alone.

As humans, what we want most is to feel connected, as I’ve explored in recent posts from the perspective of both a reader and a writer. What happens is we allow the technology to replace the connection, and we mistake the technology with the interaction itself.

I’m not sure I’m brave enough to leave the internet for a year like Paul Miller. Time will tell if his experiment lasts. But I do think it’s possible to disconnect for long enough to re-connect with something other than a screen. Even though I advocate for more interactivity and connection on devices, I also acknowledge that too much connectivity can have the opposite effect: to isolate us from what we really want from life. From Plato to Thoreau, to someone like Paul Miller today, we can see that what is more important than inter-connectivity is to live fully, however it may be defined.

Writing and collaboration in the digital age

by Kevin Eagan

Yesterday, I wrote about how reading has changed in the digital age. Today, I want to focus on how writing has changed. Specifically, I focus on the good (collaboration, new fields of study, etc.) and the bad (hasty publishing, poor editing, etc.).

infinite collaboration.

“Every artist tries to foresee or even nudge the context in which expression is to be perceived so that the art will make sense. It’s not necessarily a matter of overarching ego, or manipulative promotion, but a simple desire for meaning” — Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget

As I thought about how writing has changed in the digital age, I realized that the act of writing itself is utilitarian and boring. Essentially, not much has changed over the years when it comes to writing; the act of writing itself is just a matter of sitting and doing it, and trying to do it well. In this way, writing is no different than most other forms of creative output. An artist, for example, takes paint or ink and a canvas and creates something new out of it. What changes in the process of writing — or creating anything, really — are the tools used and the ability to find meaning in using them.

Because writing itself changes very little, I don’t see a negative change in terms of creative output on the internet or in any other digital space. People will create even more now that the tools are easier to use, and this can only mean that more amazing literature and art is out there to be discovered.

On the internet, this means shorter, more succinct, sometimes more sensationalist writing. On an e-reader or similar app-based device, this can mean more plot-driven writing, but it can also mean writing that plays freely with form. Even in the act of writing this blog post, I’m aware that this will be a longer post that requires some involvement from the reader. On one level, I’m breaking an unspoken rule about blog posts remaining short and sweet, but on another level, I’m aware that most of my readers will keep reading. Either way, this writing is a lot different from my scholarly writing, or writing for publication, even if a lot of the content remains the same.

Digital audiences are different from other audiences, and the contexts in which they exist are always in flux. This gives writers in the digital age a lot more leeway in creating and experimenting, but it also makes it a lot harder to gain and keep an audience of readers.

As I see it, there are two areas where writing in a digital space is different. First, the tools available allow writers to move beyond a print matrix, incorporating other rhetorical modes: coding, design, pixelation, hyperlinking, etc. Second, digital connectedness gives writers new ways to collaborate with people and groups that they may not have sought out in any other space. Both of these areas are incredibly important if we are to create new ways of thinking and writing.

When digital tools are used, like wikis, blogs, QR codes, collaborative word processors, and the like, the possibilities are endless…if you know how to use them, and know what they do. As someone who knows little about coding, I know that I must seek out someone who knows a lot about coding in order to make my web site or project do what I intend for it to do. Equally, someone who is great at coding but might not be that great at design might seek out a graphic designer to help turn ideas into something real. The tools are there, but what makes them work well is the ability to collaborate. This aspect is, without a doubt, the most important aspect of writing in the digital age

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The Digital Margins: Will Kindle Singles Save Digital Literature?

Back in October, Amazon released a new ebook publishing platform called Kindle Singles. The idea of Kindle Singles is to allow publishers and authors a platform to sell short-form ebooks that range (in print) from 30 to 90 pages in length. This is ideal for publishing longer articles, novellas, or small short story collections — possibly even chapbooks or serial novels.

Amazon claims Kindle Singles represent “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length,” which suggests that the platform is best suited for non-fiction (long essays, etc.) possibly republished from other magazines. This leaves the platform open for shorter length fiction as well.

So far, Kindle Singles have included series from TED and n+1 along with a collection of novellas and short stories. The platform has provided a place for aspiring writers to be published and a place for established publications to resell and re-market a series of best articles. (I’m assuming this is done with the hope that consumers will subscribe to the magazine/blog on their Kindles or in print after enjoying the article). Amazon is targeting a market that publications like The Atlantic started with their “Atlantic Fiction For Kindle” series. Most of the content is exclusive to the Kindle Singles site (just like The Atlantic’s kindle fiction is exclusive) and I’m sure it generates great revenue for Amazon and for the publishers trying this new publishing experiment.

A lot has been written about the business savvy of Kindle Singles platform, but few have considered its effect on literature in the digital age. The Kindle Singles experiment can either be viewed as a threat to literature or as a literary savior in the digital age. Or, it could represent another failed experiment in bridging the gap between literary and popular fiction on digital platforms. Many writers and publishers complain that eReaders have not yet become viable platforms to launch literary fiction. As a result, there are many questions about whether or not Kindle Singles will help create new places to discover original works of literary fiction.

Beyond these concerns about literary fiction on digital platforms, what about platforms like Kindle Singles affecting the formation (or reintroduction) of literary genres? One question on my mind is if the Kindle Singles platform could help revive the serial novel or encourage the further development of the short story or novella. Could it help perpetuate new, exciting literary genres? It is worth considering.

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Notebook Afflictions

What is it about the fetishizing of notebooks? Writers tend to think that the things they write on and with have great importance. Most writers have this need to keep things in a certain order to find the muse: a special pen, notebook, type of paper, or specific word processing program is needed in order to get it down right.

We know this concept is just fantasy. Writing is writing, and while there are things that help us get going, what is more important is the finished result.

Over at The Bygone Bureau, Whitney Carpenter writes about how she suffers from buying pretentious-looking notebooks because she believes that the notebook itself will help her write with ease:

For years I associated notebooks with the idea that I would write out my first novella in two sittings, longhand (delicately crossing out words with an inky line from my fountain pen), which elevated the medium to a paralyzing level of importance. Faced with a real notebook, the ugly reality of bad handwriting, questionable spelling, and ink blots the exact size and shape of my plot holes intruded on my fantasy. Notebooks, as any notebook enthusiast will tell you, have a legacy, and all of that timelessness can weigh on a person. The pressure to do justice to the notebook, to write something as classic and romantic as the paper housing it, is just too much; I can never muster the courage to begin. *

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The impending Death of the Book, and other stray observations

2010 proved to be the year the book died, or so it seems from many pundits and book bloggers out there. The reason: new technologies like the Kindle and the iPad, which moved into the mainstream this year, have supposedly killed off the book. Book sales are down, according to many estimates, and the act of reading itself seems to be at risk as a result of this changing market, according to many.

At the same time, e-book sales continue to rise, reading devices and apps have grown in popularity, and online literary publications have thrived in the midst of this new technology. In addition, the recession has created an increase in used book sales, and from my own very unscientific observations, books are still all around us. Despite this, many continue to declare the slow and painful death of the book. The blame is put on electronic reading and reading devices, an easy scapegoat to what appears to be the end of reading as we know it as referenced by many of these authors.

I will come out and state my personal bias: my Kindle has revolutionized the way I read and process ideas. With this new technology, I admit that something has been lost. But at the same time, something new has been gained, and I don’t view my Kindle as killing off my desire to read physical books. Instead, I view it as something that has enhanced the way I read and interact with text. I still read physical books, and love them. Most people who own eReaders still do. But I do not see the two as separate from each other: reading is reading, and technology might change how, where, and in what object we read but the pleasure of reading remains the same.

I bring up these ideas in part to respond to an article by Kyle Minor that appeared on HTMLGIANT today. Minor reflects on the Kindle and why the debate surrounding the physicality of the book should matter to readers and writers alike. While coming to the conclusion that reading on a Kindle can be a pleasurable experience, Minor frames his article with some of the objections he had and still has to the Kindle. At the beginning, he makes this point regarding why he avoided the Kindle for so long:

[I]n a book whose structural trappings (the distances between numbered parts or chapters, some physically implicit invitation to flip around among moving parts) are meant to transparently convey something about how the reader ought to enter into and understand it (Roth’s American Pastoral, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Nabokov’s Pale Fire), the abandonment of the physical book also means the abandonment of a habit common to many sophisticated readers — the act of taking a book’s measure by a frequent flipping-around comparison of the part with the whole and subsequent thinking about how that impacts the way the book does the thing the book does.*

The physicality of a book does make a difference, and Minor reveals a technological problem with the eReader. As a technology, it might not yet be mature enough to elicit this type of sophisticated reading, but it is perfect for casual reading. He goes on to state that while this is a hurdle to a reader’s ability to dive into books in the same way on a Kindle, the Kindle’s convenience and quick access to a multitude of books allows him to understand (cautiously) its appeal to readers and writers alike. At the end of his article, he concludes ambiguously about the future of the book industry:

Do I still think about the various high-minded objections? I do. I still think that e-books are bad for writers, economically speaking, and probably aesthetically, too (Will we eventually be robbed of physical copies of the thing that cost us years to make?) Maybe they’re good for readers, though, and if readers have a new reason to be enthusiastic about books, maybe that’s good for writers. Would I give my books away for free if it ensured them a massive audience, even though it would keep me from making money on them? Maybe. Do I think writers ought to be compensated for their work. Of course, and, if the writer is me, well-compensated. Do I think it’s unhealthy for ebooks to tank booksellers the way big chains tanked indies? Yes. Am I distrustful of million-tentacled corporate monsters like Amazon? Very. Is there anything significant I can do about it? Not any more likely than my chances of getting people to abstain from MP3s and take up vinyl, culture-wide. It’s not going to happen.*

While I understand these objections, and agree that in ebooks a part of the interactivity of reading is lost, I still view the ebook as one more viable addition to the production of the book. It is a positive addition, and it is one that will only serve to bolster the importance of literature and the book industry for years to come.

Just as other book technologies have helped to add to the way we interact with text, the ebook will help, rather than destroy, the book as we know it (as an example, look at mass-produced paperbacks in the early 20th Century and the periodical in the early 19th Century and their effects on American literature). It is too easy, in many ways, to blame the medium for the sometimes negative changes in the way books are marketed and consumed, especially in our hyper-literate, over-stimulated society.

With this idea in mind, and with Minor’s interesting perspectives on the book as a physical object as a starting point (his article is well worth the read, by the way), I’d like to think that as the technology improves, so will our interactions with ebooks improve. Right now, the eReader works best for pleasure reading, but still leaves much to be desired for studying and devouring books much in the way the critic or author would like the book to be read.

Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close play with and require a physical book to be enjoyed to their fullest potential. The depths of these books are lost on the reader without the physical book. Equally, reading a musty, leather-bound copy of Matthew Arnold’s Essays In Criticism instead of reading it in ebook or paperback form gives the work a different contextual meaning and breathes a certain life into the work that might be missed otherwise.

At the same time, reading a bestseller such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in ebook form, a physically large and imposing book to read in its hardcover version, puts the book alongside other shorter, lighter bestsellers. The smaller size changes the way one treats the book’s significance. This may provide a different reading experience. Whether good or bad, it gives the book one more layer of meaning. It’s similar to the difference in listening experience between an mp3 version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing on my iPod during my morning commute and the vinyl version on my home stereo in my living room. It might be the same album, but it sounds different, and my experience of it is drastically different. In this same way, as readers we must think of the ebook as providing one other reading experience, but not the definitive experience.

Ebooks do not represent the death of the book. Instead, they give the reader a different frame and context to interact with text. With time, this will influence the ways authors view their works being consumed by readers. Hopefully, this will bring new levels of sophisticated play with genre and form of literature.