Category Archives: paralleltexts

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?