Is this the future of print?

I snagged a copy of The Atlantic at the airport before the flight back to Vancouver. Normally I would not be so optimistic to expect reading time sitting next to my toddler, but the cover story was an eye-grabber: a profile of political talk radio host John Ziegler written by David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s piece on cruise ships originally written for Harper’s — later the title essay for his outstanding collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — might rank as my favorite piece of creative nonfiction from the past decade, so I couldn’t resist.

For those who haven’t read him before, Wallace is an extraordinarily bright, erudite writer with a cool streak who often can’t help but show off how smart and well-read and groovy that he is. His characteristic style is loaded with digressive footnotes (sometimes 3 or 4 per page), notes often nested within notes, that serve as a testament to his irrepressible sense of self-reflexive fun and relentless meta-analysis. His style and persona probably annoys some readers but I find that his ostentatious smarts are mitigated by a generous spirit and fine sense of humour. (I had the pleasure of briefly meeting him at a reading and found his presence very much consistent with his literary voice.)

I recommend reading the piece — if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his finest work (and it might), it is certainly well-written and insightful, going deeper than most of critiques of the rhetorical cesspool that is mainstream talk radio today — and it’s certainly superlative pop culture commentary. But that’s not why I’m mentioning it here on the blog. What’s of academic interest is the way that Wallace’s style is complemented by the page layout. His compulsive digressions are not represented by foot or endnotes, as they usually are, but by colour-coded blocks of highlighted text corresponding to text blocks (windows?) in the margins. The overall effect on the page is quite pleasing, and for the first time I feel as if the typography and layout of Wallace’s text is in synch with his style.

You can get a better sense of what I’m describing by checking out this screenshot of a pdf, and how it’s online version works from this sample — though neither comes close to the actual print pages.

More than simply an effective design representation of an author’s narrative voice, the piece strikes me as a minor watershed in the remediation (or influence) of hypertext (back) onto the printed page. I’m obviously not the only person who thinks so (some good commentary here and here, and undoubtedly elsewhere).

The Atlantic article is not available to non-subscribers online, alas, but it’s worth springing a few bucks for a print copy — especially if you are interested in the technical and business sides of modern radio and political media in general. And Wallace’s speculations on the psychological implications (for audience and purveyors) of this cruel medium are idiosyncratic, but feel right on the money to me.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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