Hypertextual wandering

Hypertextual wanderings

As I spend another sleepless night (because I slept all day) I started thinking about something (imagine that!). One of my favorite bits in Small Pieces Loosely Joined is this:

Perhaps the Web isn’t shortening our attention span. Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting.

You’ll just have to imagine the huge “Amen!” I shouted when I read that.

I’ve always been rather “hypertextual” and I suspect I’m not the only one. Hart Crane seems to display a lot of those properties, as do most great writers (not that I’m classifying myself with them). My evil female twin, who I moved to Arkansas to be with (big pieces, too tightly wrapped into my personal mythology) was an artist with a taste for philosophy who usually had seven or eight books open around the house to different sections to clarify her primary reading at the time. I have worked the same way most of my life, reading at first a few things (and now dozens of things) at a time. I told myself I wasn’t going to do that this summer. I was going to read some novels, damn it. But I digress. When Weinberger did the “imagine having x books at your immediate disposal” I looked around the room and said, “but I already have that without my computer!”

Anyone who has read me for any length of time may have noticed my wandering ways; I started to read I.A. Richards. He mentioned some Coleridge I wasn’t familiar with, but since it was on my bookshelf I opted to pause and read it before finishing the book. His book reminded me of Ricoeur, which I had read, but I revisited the dozen or so pages that discuss Richards. I do that sort of reading all the time; it comes up a lot with classical references. When someone mentions a situation in a play or novel as context for a critical argument, I’ll often stop and read the work mentioned for the first time, or refresh my memory of it. I found myself strangely drawn to The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts by Richard Lanham tonight, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time (the theoretical books I want to read usually outnumber the novels at any given time).

In the preface, Lanham claims (regarding the personal computer) that “a new expressive medium had emerged— but the demand for the medium had preceded the medium itself.” I do believe this is the case with hypertext. The demand for it is something that has been building up in literature for years (particularly Modernist literature) because it becomes impossible to always know what an author is alluding to without a lot of secondary research. As history grows longer, keeping up on all the “commonplaces” of the day, words that have shifted in meaning or have fallen out of use, requires a battery of dictionaries and other aids to keep these works fresh and relevant. With greater access to tools, the world becomes a more interesting place because nothing is out of our grasp when it comes to providing deeper contexts to the topic you wish to explore. What makes hypertext interesting to me is not its rupture with narrative form, but its sheer utility when it comes to matching how people actually read (here, there and everywhere).

I’ve heard it said somewhere before that the primary job of scholars is research. With tools like hypertext at the fingertips of anyone who cares to use it, I can only hope that “scholar” stops being an esoteric or derogatory term. Research isn’t sitting in an ivory tower away from the world, it’s living in it and trying to make the most of it. I seem to recall Emerson saying something to that effect in a commencement address somewhere. He encouraged everyone to get out of the library and head for the forest after graduation. I suspect he’d probably not mind having a terminal around, so that the research time could be shortened, and he’d have more time to watch the sunset.