Reports of the Web’s harmful effects upon reading habits have been greatly overstated. Two recent online projects sufficiently demonstrate that we’re only just beginning to understand what the Web can do. The first is Power Moby Dick, an online depiction of Melville’s classic novel with often very helpful annotations on the side. (The annotations resemble the colored box version of David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”) The second is The Golden Notebook Project (via), in which Doris Lessing’s novel is online and searchable. Over five to six weeks, seven critics are providing side comments for the respective pages: a form somewhere between Power Moby Dick and the many roundtable literary discussions that can be found around the Web. There is also a forum, although it appears that nobody aside from the Magnificent Seven has left comments.
I’m wondering, however, if we can’t see these dynamic experiments go further. I would be very interested in seeing the Golden project provide a place for every published thought on every particular line in that novel. Perhaps there might be a way to track words and references used by earlier writers and carried on by later writers. There could be a better implementation of the forum through a wiki, in which various readers could offer additional questions in a separate accessible area. With RSS feeds, perhaps someone with a Kindle or a Sony Reader might download the latest central version with annotations.
As I observed a few days ago, it’s fantastic that nearly all the books of yesteryear are available in some form online. But I don’t think we’re being ambitious enough. If text is scannable and searchable, then the door needs to be opened for how the reader, both common and academic, can access and annotate the text. Perhaps government funding might be put into place to hire literary experts around the nation to preserve specific literary works, perform research, and annotate them for the public. (I observe that the MacArthur Foundation has provided pivotal funding for The Golden Notebook.) What amazes me in particular about these two online projects is how neither detracts from the author-reader relationship. They respect that exclusive relationship, while accounting for the additional relationships which spring up between other readers. What we have here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the novel, to expand the audience, and to live up to the helpful hypertextual ideas advocated by Robert Coover.