Reading Hypertext: Lingering

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

As a literature teacher I have experience with all kinds of readers, people who enter the classroom with very few books and people who come with enormous background in numerous kinds of texts. All of them are fine people and they really don’t need my assistance with their lives or decisions. But the classroom comes with a tradition of study and encounter. I try to encourage all of these students to practice a certain kind of attitude about reading that doesn’t push “finishing” a text but “lingering” on it.

This is the importance of the sentence, that small unit of sense in any text. We should linger on the sense units. Case in point: Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton1.jpg I try to cover as much of Paradise Lost as possible in the first iteration of English Literature because it is a significant text for writers after Milton and because it is significant to the history of literary studies and because I just enjoy reading it and talking about it. It is quite lengthy and demanding. Still, even the first few lines demand pause to think about literal and historical matter. What is the “First Disobedience” that did so much damage to Man? Why does the poet address the Muse and what does this tell the reader about the poem as a whole, the role of the poet and muse, and the argument Milton will be making throughout the poem? Thinking about the first few lines of Paradise Lost could prompt all kinds of interesting conversations about creativity, the influence of religion and spiritual narrative, and whatever else might come to mind. The novice reader will often rush through the text, get lost, snarl at the mythological references, and not know where to start to gain back orientation.

In some cases, it might be wise to skim the text for an anchor or some sense of the literal narrative and then return for detailed analysis later, but either way, the gems of the text will only surface or are more likely to surface for the reader if he or she stops to consider meaning. This is true of any text. In a way, this is much like reading the environment in a work of Interactive Fiction, where the significance of any object will only surface until it’s examined. If the richness of the textual environment goes un-mined, the reader may close the experience prematurely. Likewise, we may dash through a building to get that piece of mail off on time, and only on the slow return to the exit notice the carvings, the grillwork, and the well-placed stones.

Consider Susan Gibb’s hypertext Bottle of Beer in the quest for linger. This work is published at the Hypertextopia Grand Library. In the first writing space presented to the read we have an emphasis on light, shadow, and routine:

Down the road to the west where sunsets sizzle like a ball of melting butter, a shadow jogged closer in little flicks of black. Yolanda picked through the basket of jalapeños with fingers fat and stiff as sausages. She selected one and stabbed it with a threaded needle, drawing it up into a ristra.

The image of Yolanda’s “fat and stiff” fingers and the jalapeños merges for a sense of human and vegetable fleshiness. The second paragraph ends with an additional feature of Yolanda, that she has large breasts. Yolanda is presented as fleshy, like a nice fat jalapeño. The air is hot and she’s drinking beer and she stringing chiles, peering into the sun. In the Hypertextopia writing and reading system, the “main axis” or narrative of the story is followed by following links in a space beneath each text space, as the below image illustrates.


The reader simply clicks on the link “Closer” and moves to the next reading space, which is itself entitled “Closer.” The entire text of that space goes like this:

Yolanda plotted against the dying sun. Balanced on the horizon, it flamed angry red in its agonies, sinking slow and low onto the sharp blade of highway. She would not be able to finish stringing all the peppers before dark.

She wiped her hands on the folds of her skirt, brought the hem of the bright purple cotton up to her face to mop up the perspiration that hung on her skin.

The black spot grew and bounced along the linearity of road.

The link “Closer” binds the space titled “Yolanda” with the space titled “Closer.” By reading “Yolanda,” we already have a pretty good picture of Yolanda as a fleshy woman stringing together chiles. I’ll be examining links in another area, but it bears mention that the links in Bottle of Beer, those provided for “linking” in Hypertextopia, and links in general, are special devices. They, like any other element in a work of art, demand some pause. Consider “Closer” as a link. In one sense, this link is an invitation. This link can be read to say “Come closer” or “Examine further.” When the space “Closer” appears, the reader is in a way agreeing to “Move, Examine, or Come” closer to the fictional world being presented, to get a “closer” glimpse into Yolanda and what she may mean. The reader could indeed chose ignore the the link and close the window. Additionally, the link itself could merely denote, rather than connote, meaning it could simply imply that what is to follow has something to do with “Closer” as nothing more than a label or title.

However, links often function as more than mere navigation device. In Bottle of Beer, “Closer” as link is also bound to the final sentence of the next space: “The black spot grew and bounced along the linearity of road.” The author is careful not to write: “The black spot came “closer.” In this sense, and only after reading the final sentence of the next space, the link may be re-deemed a foreshadowing device. The link, therefore, constitutes a fragment of physically detached grammatical elements, a figure of diction in its own right, to draw again from the ad Herennium. And if this is true, then every other link in the hypertext suddenly rises in status becoming more than just a textual button or indicator of an axis. Hypertext, in this context, positions single word links as powerful elements to linger on and perhaps move back to, like carvings on moulding in an architectural space, before using them to move from point A to point B.

The graces of the link are important to think about as tools of meaning, just as the figure of the muse is important to Milton’s reader. Yolanda sweats on her porch. She strings the peppers. She’s waiting for something and something is on its way. What?

Lingering on Lockridge tomorrow.

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