Thursday, March 03, 2005

But where's the margin in that?

David Foster Wallace has an extraordinary-formatted-even-for-him new thing in the current Atlantic. (It annoyed The Elegant Variation, is how I know.) If you don't have the .pdf power to see, it uses pastel blocks over phrases in the main text to link to notes on pastel blocks in a generous, and sometimes expanding, scholar's margin.

One obvious accusation is hyperlink-envy; the look is vaguely reminiscent of a children's encyclopedia circa 1996. Mr Wallace being Mr Wallace, he also makes quite clever use of the ability to emphasise blocks with his notes, rather than mere points -- he has been upgraded to Spanish punctuation.

But this design also embodies a preference for sidenotes that seems to crop up every time people try to rethink texts -- so much more graphic than footnotes, so much less hierarchical. (See also Gray, Alasdair, Prefaces, Book of, The.)

And so much less readable! If the notes append anything more than chapter and verse, you get competing vertical movements on the page, which makes concentrating on one thing harder, and keeping your place when jumping about harder still. The effect is exaggerated on screen -- especially if you are also having to cope with anti-aliased Linotype Didot -- but it is real on paper. There are reasons why footnotes won this historical battle, and they go beyond the simple desire to use all available space.

You want an opinion on the words? Strong. It's a sketch of a talk-radio host, and it puts back in the shabbiness and the marginal (yes, visual pun time) hourly-rate workers left out of more conventional, hyped exposes. Result is maybe an overcorrection -- too much of the pity, not enough of the power -- but the correction was necessary, and it's adroitly done.

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