Inspired by Hugh McGuire: Writing as Exploration

Hugh McGuire’s outstanding recent piece “What books can learn from the the Web / What the Web can learn from books” is well worth reading in full. As Medium helpfully informs us, doing this will only take 11 minutes.

This piece will offer a summary of McGuire’s argument, followed by an analysis of that argument’s implications for the future of writing.

Summary: McGuire — who is the founder of PressBooks — notes that the commercial ebook market is proprietary, closed, and indifferent to the bolder expectations of readers. PressBooks is a major exception to this: anyone can publish a book using PressBooks, and any online reader can access it.

But our Kindles, Nooks, and iBooks are walled gardens, with content that cannot be linked and searched across platforms. For example, if McGuire reads one book about stars on one platform and another book about stars on another platform there is no way to easily consolidate his links and notes about both books in one place.

This is by design, of course. Proprietary lock in preserves established revenue streams for publishers. Today ebooks are sold item-by-item, one by one. Publishers have built new bookshelves even though ebooks are not physical items. As McGuire puts it, so far it’s “publisher over reader.”

Readers have a role in this state of play, though, even if publishers have obvious incentives for their actions. A particularly valuable aspect of a physical book, as McGuire notes, is its boundedness. Pick up any single book and you know exactly where to start, how to proceed, and when you are finished. There is an internal coherence to a physical book, which is not true on the larger, infinite Internet.

On the Web you are always just one click away from spinning off in an entirely new direction. In a print book you are rooted in place, which has its own rewards. So perhaps adult* readers also desire the walled off, chopped-up ebook market. At last, here is one corner of our online worlds that is orderly and familiar.

McGuire’s view is that it is possible for our ebooks to be much more open and connected, while still being bounded and contained as a singular reading experience. Indeed, this is his mission.

*: Children still have many reasons, not least their tactility and facilitation of a sense of adventure, to read print books. This is based on my conversation with friends who are parents. I am focusing here on adult readers.

Analysis: A decade ago I took a few writing courses at the 92nd St Y in New York City. I had started a blog the year before, and most of my blog posts linked out to other sources. While it was true that the writing should stand on its own, it was simultaneously true that the ability to hyperlink allowed for deeper context. Pre-Web such connections would be buried in footnotes or endnotes; now they could be part of the main reading experience.

After just a year of blogging, the idea of writing something “naked” — without any links — was already strange. This was true even though I had written this way for my entire life. So during those 92nd St Y courses I submitted a piece that included embedded hyperlinks. Readers did not need to click the links to understand the piece, but they were welcome to do so.

The teacher — esteemed author Ben Downing — frowned at this.

No links allowed. The writing should stand on its own. Here was a clash of venerable tradition against new technological possibilities.

For the rest of those courses I submitted writing “the old fashioned way,” but with a sense of loss. Sometimes there is virtue in observing and living within constraints. Sometimes constraints are just dogmatic limits.

Per McGuire, though, Downing had a point. The self-contained nature of a piece of writing, from an essay to a play to a novel, has its virtues. Shakespeare did not need hyperlinks.

But this is a false binary. If Shakespeare were alive today Hamlet would be just as majestic. Those who want to read it in print could read the PDF. And those who want to understand the social history of “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark” could click and then return to the text.

Reading is both fully bounded and endlessly referential at the same time.

Or it can be, if we let it.

McGuire might note that my example above, of hyperlinking from Hamlet, is already possible with today’s e-readers. He would be right about this. McGuire’s frustration stems from the inability to merge observations from two different critical editions of Hamlet that he might read on two different e-readers.

That desire is an extrapolation from the root questions though: How much should writings stand alone? And how much should we make the links between different writings explicit?

I’m with McGuire — in this regard we can have our cake and eat it too. Yes: any good writing should have an internal logic and flow that does not require readers to follow any external links (score one for Downing). But good writing can and should include such links, for those readers who wish to follow them (score one for McGuire and Banks). Writing is an exploration, after all. Hyperlinks just make that explicit.