Category Archives: annotation

a thought experiment: reading in parallel

I recently picked up Amiri Baraka’s The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, as I’d been curious about the trajectory of the life of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a man who pops up in interesting places. His autobiography is a curious work: for reasons that are unclear to me as a casual reader, names in certain sections of his life have been changed. His first wife, née Hettie Cohen, becomes Nellie Kohn. Yugen, the magazine they started together, becomes Zazen; the Partisan Review becomes The Sectarian Review. As a casual reader, the reasons for these discrepancies are unclear, but they were interesting enough to me that I picked up How I Became Hettie Jones, his first wife’s version of her life. She presents many of the same scenes Baraka narrates, with her own spin on events, a difference that might not be unexpected in the narration of a divorced couple.
The changes in names are an extreme example, but the basic situation is not one that uncommon in how we read: two books share the same subject matter but differ in particulars. As noted, I read the two books in series as a casual reader, but I found myself wishing there were some way to visualize the linkages or correspondences between the books. One could write in the margins of Baraka’s description of a party “cf. Jones pp. 56–57” to point out Hettie Jones’s version of events, but it strikes me that electronic representations of a book could do this better. What I’d like to see, though, isn’t something as simple as a hyperlink; these links should point both ways automatically. Different kinds of links – showing, for example, similarities and differences – might help. Presenting the texts side by side seems obvious; lines could be drawn between the texts. The problem could be expanded: consider comparing and contrasting a Harry Potter book with its film version.
This isn’t an especially complex reading behavior at all: we compare texts (of different sorts) all the time. We look at, for example, how Rudolph Giuliani reads the statistics on survival of prostate cancer and how the New York Times reads the same statistics. Why aren’t there online reading tools that acknowledge this as a problem?

video (in your own words)

is the slogan of Mojiti, a company based in Beijing which has enabled commenting for video. Users can annotate any video on YouTube, Google, MySpace and about twenty other providers with text, shape and images. the annotations can be animated as well. The interface for making comments is unusually simple and straightforward. On first glance this is an important step forward in web 2.0 applications. [note: the demos all show text fields with solid backgrounds obscuring the video. in fact it’s quite easy to make the text box transparent or to turn off the annotations at any point to see the unalloyed video]

live, on the web, it’s the iraq study group report!

Since leaving Harper’s last spring, Lewis Lapham has been developing plans for a new journal, Lapham’s Quarterly, which will look at important contemporary subjects (one per issue) through the lens of history. Not long ago, Lewis approached the Institute about helping him and his colleagues to develop a web component of the Quarterly, which he imagined as a kind of unorthodox news site where history and source documents would serve as a decoder ring for current events — a trading post of ideas, facts, and historical parallels where readers would play a significant role in piecing together the big picture. To begin probing some of the possibilities for this collaboration, we came up with an exciting and timely experiment: we’ve taken the granular commenting format that we hacked together just a few weeks ago for Mitch Stephens’ paper and plugged in the Iraq Study Group Report. The Lapham crew, for their part, have taken their first editorial plunge into the web, using their broad print network to assemble an astonishing roster of intellectual heavyweights to collectively annotate the text, paragraph by paragraph, live on the site. Here’s more from Lewis:

As expected and in line with standard government practice, the report issued by the Iraq Study Group on December 6th comes to us written in a language that guards against the crime of meaning–a document meant to be admired as a praise-worthy gesture rather than understood as a clear statement of purpose or an intelligible rendition of the facts. How then to read the message in the bottle or the handwriting on the wall?
Lapham’s Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book answers the question with a new form of discussion and critique– an annotated edition of the ISG Report on a website programmed to that specific purpose, evolving over the course of the next three weeks into a collaborative illumination of an otherwise black hole. What you have before you is the humble beginnings of that effort–the first few marginal notes and commentaries furnished by what will eventually be a large number of informed sources both foreign and domestic (historians, military officers, politicians, intelligence operatives, diplomats, some journalists), invited to amend, correct, augment or contradict any point in the text seemingly in need of further clarification or forthright translation into plain English.
As the discussion adds to the number of its participants so also it will extend the reach of its memory and enlarge its spheres of reference. What we hope will take shape on short notice and in real time is the publication of a report that should prove to be a good deal more instructive than the one distributed to the members of Congress and the major news media.

Being at the very beginning of the experiment, what you’ll see on the site today is more or less a blank slate. Our hope is that in the days and weeks ahead, a lively conversation will begin to bubble up in the pages of the report — a kind of collaborative marginalia on a grand scale — mounting toward Bush’s big Iraq strategy speech next month. Around that time, the Lapham’s editors will open up commenting to the public. Until then, here are just some of the people we expect to participate: Anthony Arnove, Helena Cobban, Joshua Cohen, Jean Daniel, Raghida Dergham, Joan Didion, Mark Danner, Barbara Ehrenrich, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Engelhardt, Stanley Fish, Robert Fisk, Eric Foner, Christopher Hitchens, Rashid Khalidi, Chalmers Johnson, Donald Kagan, Kanan Makiya, William Polk, Walter Russel Mead, Karl Meyer, Ralph Nader, Gianni Riotta, M.J. Rosenberg, Gary Sick, Matthew Stevenson, Frances Stonor, Lally Weymouth, and Wayne White.
Not too shabby.
The form is still very much in the R&D phase, but we’ve made significant improvements since the last round. Add this to your holiday reading stack and watch how it develops.
(We strongly recommend viewing the site in Firefox.)