Monday, August 29, 2011

To infinity and beyond

I've finally thrown myself into reading Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City, a "San Francisco atlas" that contains maps and their accompanying cultural histories of every juxtaposition from gay men and butterflies to gourmet stores and toxic waste. It's a beautiful and thought-provoking book--some of the historical anecdotes, and the way they map onto the larger city, are truly unexpected and remarkable. Something that's always on my mind, though, is the evolution of reading from page to screen. In a recent development, a publisher I work for has launched a sort of digital extras program, where purchasing a physical book grants you access to a range of additional material on your computer (essays about historical context and the like). I have nothing but respect for the way my employer is constantly redefining the face of literary publishing, and I hope they succeed in this venture. But when my mother told me she'd read about it in the paper, my first response was, I don't want my book to come with digital extras.

That this is my perspective will come as no surprise to any of you who've read this blog, or talked to me, before. But I see it coming up again and again. Take Paul La Farge, who I just heard about through McSweeney's and whose novels I'd like to read. But his newest is set to contain all sorts of hypertextual branchings and careenings. As with my employer, I think it's admirable to pursue new literary directions, but when I sit down with a book, I just want to READ it.

And so I have a bit of trouble with Infinite City, even though I understand that what I'm calling a drawback is also a selling point. Solnit and her contributors refer to so many places, people, and historical events that I feel like I can't fully enjoy the atlas without a search engine at my beck and call. It's a book I'll read by the computer, not one I will carry around and love on the subway, in a crowded cafe, or walking down the street. I think it's great that my eyes have been opened to so many new things. But--and you can tell me I'm just being lazy here--I wish the book itself provided a little bit of background for me. For every allusion I delved into deep (like Clover Stornetta's brilliant labels), five others could've been cleared up with a quick biographical aside, which would enable me to enjoy the book in its own right, not as a portal to filling my head with wikipediaed information about San Francisco.

Of course, that's what I deserve for picking a book with a name like Infinite City.

What do you think, reader? Do you like your books to be integrated with a set of material not contained within them, or with the wider world?

As a postscript, I should add that two recent examples of interwoven works that I do feel were worth the investment of page sifting and computer access (though they daunted me for a long time) are David Foster Wallace's befootnoted Infinite Jest and Alex Ross's 20th-century musical history The Rest Is Noise with its invaluable listening excerpts on the author's website. But this isn't what I look for in most of my (escapist?) reading material.

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