On DFW, Footnotes, and the Kindle

Today would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50ᵗʰ birthday.¹ I just finished reading Neal Gabler’s biography Walt Disney which had a moderate number of footnotes, and it was interesting to see how the Kindle handles them.³ Inevitably I started thinking about how reading Infinite Jest would be on the Kindle, of which almost a hundred pages are footnotes, many crucial to the plot of the novel. Wallace intended for there to be a certain physicality to reading the book as you flipped back and forth between the notes. You lose this with an ebook, probably for the worse though, having read a few 1000+-page books in my days, the Kindle’s six ounce weight sure is nice. Mostly, though, the text isn’t any different. It’s still a novel with some notes at the end.

A few years ago I read a piece call called “The Influence of Anxiety: Wading In” by Marie Mundaca, who designed the print edition of Wallace’s Consider the Lobster (and a few others). In it, Mundaca says that for the essay called “Host,” Wallace wanted to try something different with the design:

[T]here was one particular essay called “Host” that required some special treatment. Wallace, infamous for his footnotes and endnotes, wanted to try something a little different with “Host.” He wanted to stress the immediacy of communication and the speed of thought that occurred in the studio where the talk radio DJ John Ziegler worked. The Atlantic Monthly had already run a version of this essay and did a spectacular design job, using a format with color-coded callouts, as if someone had highlighted a script and made note in the margins.

The Atlantic has a copy of the essay up on its site, but the design described above didn’t make the transition to hypertext. Just pop-up footnotes. Here’s a page from the book version:

Consider the Lobster page

Mundaca goes on to say how she and Wallace would correspond frequently about the book’s design, including some “very intense discussions regarding the semiotics of the leaders (the lines going from the text to the boxes) and the tics and the line width of the boxes and the ampersands.”

All of those design elements are absent from the Kindle edition, as far as I can tell. I like the Kindle a lot, but this is a shame. Perhaps the iPad will allow for more experimentation in book design. I’ve just started reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and can’t help but think how a good ebook version of that would improve upon the text with embedded sound clips of Bach pieces and nice color photos of Escher’s paintings. In college I remember expressing frustration to a professor that an assigned reading didn’t have any photos of the artwork being discussed. He said that the realities of book publishing just made that impossible sometimes. In theory ebooks should eliminate that, but there’s a ways to go yet.

  1. It’s long been my preference to remember a person on his birthday, celebrating his life, rather than the anniversary of his death. Grief is always ultimately a selfish emotion.² 
  2. Is it pompous to use footnotes in a post about David Foster Wallace? I feel like it is. I don’t affect an Elizabethan accent when I talk about Shakespeare. But somehow as soon as I start to think about his writing my thoughts put themselves into a certain kind of order, where digressions must be entertained but should be segregated. I guess I’m begging forgiveness for the indulgence. 
  3. On the Kindle, each footnote appears as a hyperlink. You move your cursor over it (or, on the Touch and Fire, tap it, I suppose), and it sends you to the back of the book. I guess Kindle footnotes are really all end notes. When you’re done reading the note, you click the back button on the Kindle and it takes you back to where you were in the book. It all works pretty well. Better than I expected it to, really. 
  4. It’s not online anymore but I do have a copy saved in my Pinboard account. It used to live at Hipster Book Club. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine isn’t pulling it up, either.