Screens, Research and Hypertext

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On Reading and Scholarship

Research rarely involves reading straight through a single text.

I rarely read a nonfiction work cover-to-cover without stopping. That’s not to say I don’t read the entire book. I normally will. But my journey isn’t a straightforward one.

My route to writing this article is illustrative.

I began reading Collin Gifford Brooke’s Lingua Fracta over the Christmas holiday.

I quickly realized that Brooke’s entire thesis rested upon reimagining classical rhetoric. So I stopped to read Cicero’s De Inventione and to reread Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Upon reaching a section discussing the container metaphor in writing, I spent some time reading Lakoff and Johnson on metaphors generally and looking up JSTOR articles on metaphors and composition.

While trying to wrap my head around structuralism and deconstruction, I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Jaques Derrida.

Throughout my reading, I held dozens of conversations with my coworkers, asking questions about what I’d read, sharing quotes, asking for insights on different ideas.

I finally read the entirety of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read to better understand the parallels between hypertext and Bayard’s assertion that understanding the links between books is more important than reading the actual books.

After failing to make much headway with Brooke's many references to early literary criticism analyses of hypertext theory generally, and George Landow specifically, I read Landow’s Hypertext 3.0, one of the watershed works in the discipline.

At various points, I stopped to re-read a bunch of philosophy papers I'd not engaged with in a decade, took another stab at learning XML and RDF, and read Mark Baker's excellent book on the rhetoric of structured writing.

My story is neither new nor unique. It’s how I learned to conduct research as an undergraduate; how I wrote seminar papers, a master’s thesis and a dissertation in graduate school; how I wrote scholarly papers as a young academic.

I learned these methods from older scholars who learned from older scholars who learned from still older scholars. It’s a tradition of lean-forward reading that dates back pretty much to the founding of universities. Here's Brooke:

As academic writers, it is almost second nature to us to weave together various and disparate texts and then contribute our own particular approach or perspective, resulting in the kind of "cognitive fabric" that we publish as an article in our disciplinary journals.

When we do research, we jump between texts. We place new ideas in context. We dig into remarks made in passing. We reread texts we’ve mostly forgotten or read important pieces we’d been meaning to get to.

Research is decentered in exactly the way hypertext is meant to be.

For more context

Wherein I learn about conducting research in a second-hand chair.

What to read next

What does it mean to call a text decentered?

Other items of interest

I spent years talking about How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read without having actually read it.

Metaphors shape how we think about hypertext. When it comes to the web, we've chosen some really bad ones.

Referenced in

In Which I Wax Nostalgic About Graduate School

No calm, sedate, systematic review of a single text. It's scholarship as activity. Read a section from one book, scramble to find the underlined passage in a different text, scribble some note cards, jam something new into an outline, scribble in the margins. On a good day, maybe even write down a few sentences on your Mac.

Screens and Reading

But that's not how I read nonfiction. I flip ahead to sections that interest me. I go back when I realize I didn't fully understand an earlier concept that I need now. Often I open a second or third book to cross-reference what I'm seeing.