Writing and linearity

“Now the trouble began,” Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. “The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen. The student by my side, for instance, who was copying assiduously from a scientific manual, was, I felt sure, extracting pure nuggets of the essential ore every ten minutes or so. His little grunts of satisfaction indicated so much. But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds.”

The ‘trouble’ that Woolf identifies here, is a problem every PhD student faces at some point: how can your writing do justice to all the material you have studied and read on your subject? Because writing is linear, and research is often much more haphazard and associative, you always need to leave things out in order to make for a clear, straightforward argument. I’m always noting ideas and fascinating quotations in separate files — to be used, perhaps, for future research. But what if you keep filing those things up in your computer, like a modern Casaubon, and never get to publish them?

Hypertext could offer a solution to this problem. Since terms in the text can be linked to other pieces of writing, a more haphazard, circular form of reading and writing is possible. In a fascinating article in the online cultural studies journal Rhizomes, Michelle Kendrick compares hypertext to the écriture féminine of French feminism: “hypertext may give us a space for a poetics of the and/and/and rather than the either/or: a place where our feminist content, arguments or musings, may coexist side by side with their contradictions.” The same might go for the musings, arguments, and contradictions of a PhD research.

I know of one PhD thesis written as a hypertext website. It’s Marcel Cobussen’s amazing Deconstruction in Music. The online thesis opens with a map of its contents, based on an underground map as you find them in London or Paris. You click on the section you want to read, and the sections refer to each other through links in the text. “This work is the sediment of a quest, a wavering series of explorations, and not the presentation of a set of conclusions,” Cobussen writes in his introduction — precisely what Virginia Woolf would have been looking for.

Robert Darnton, a historian who specializes in the history of the book, aims to take the idea to an even further level. He is planning to publish an e-book that not only links the various sections of its argument, but which also links to deeper levels of research: to his research notes, background information, his sources:

Here is how my fantasy takes shape — and it’s just a fantasy at this stage, for I don’t believe any such work exists, at least not in the discipline of history. An “e-book,” unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers, arranged in the shape of a pyramid. Readers can download the text and skim through the topmost layer, which would be written like an ordinary monograph. […] If they come upon something that especially interests them, they can click down a layer to a supplementary essay or appendix. They can continue deeper through the book, through bodies of documents, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music, everything I can provide to give the fullest possible understanding of my subject. In the end, readers will make the subject theirs, because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead.

If this is the future of the book, I’m all for it!


One thought on “Writing and linearity

  1. I found two useful lists of reading material on Hypertext Theory at Amazon (1 & 2). One of the key publications on the subject of hypertext and the practice of writing seems to be Jay Bolter’s Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, the second edition of which (2001) is also sold as a hypertext.

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