Michael Bierut | Essays

Vladimir Nabokov: Father of Hypertext?

#TBT: Michael Bierut originally wrote and published this in January 2004. Trust us, it's just as relevant today.

It was too cold to even think about going out in the sunshine, and I had spent about two hours at my computer, following links from blog to blog. Moving irresistibly from gawker.com to kottke.org to adrants.com to liberaloasis.com to moveon.org and on and on, it's easy to lose track of time. Finally, fatigue set in, as well as a bit of disgust that I was wasting an afternoon meandering through a lot of barely connected ideas.

I turned to my chores for the weekend, which included putting away a bunch of books that my wife had been piling up. One was Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. I opened it up, and immediately found myself back in that same world, but this time in the hands of a master. In 1962, Nabokov not only anticipated the linked world of hypertext, but also created that genre's first — and only? — undisputed literary masterpiece.

I would claim Pale Fire as one of my favorite books, except it has so many rabid fans that I'm not sure I qualify to join their number. If you aren't familiar with it, it's one of the few pieces of literature that I would argue proceeds from a design conception. The book consists of four parts: a Foreword by "Dr. Charles Kinbote;" the eponymous 999-line poem by "John Shade;" more than 200 pages of Commentary on the poem by Kinbote, and an Index, again by Kinbote. The names are in quotes above because the entire book was actually written, of course, by Nabokov, who uses the fictional authors and interlocking elements to tell many stories at once — some, all, or none of which may be "true."

An analysis by Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd, Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery, exposes the protohypertextual quality of the narrative in his description of the book's opening pages. At the end of the Foreword's fifth paragraph — three pages into the book — a parenthetical aside refers the reader to Kinbote's note to line 991 of the poem. If one turns forward to the note, one finds midway through it further instruction to turn to the note to lines 47-48, which in turn contains a reference to the note on line 691. Returning back to note on lines 47-48, one encounters a second reference to the note to line 62. And on and on. The whole book works that way, and we're only three pages in. Sound familiar?

Of course, Nabokov's genius is not simply that, in contrast to the multiple voices of the blog world, he's the author behind all the different parts that make up Pale Fire's universe. It's that the elaborate structure of the book is so perfectly conceived that regardless of what path you follow, you can have an endlessly stimulating literary experience. In fact, I hesitate to raise this one again, but might I suggest that Pale Fire is design and, say, Lolita is art? (Sorry, let's not get into that.)

A check on Google reveals that my Pale-Fire-as-protohypertext revelation is far from original. Entering "pale fire" + nabokov + hypertext + links turns up over 200 hits. One of these includes the interesting fact that as early as 1969, IBM had obtained permission from Nabokov's publisher, Putnam, to use Pale Fire for a demo of an early version of a hypertext-like system by Brown University's Theodor Nelson. (IBM did not go through with the proposal.)

My copy of Pale Fire — I have a first edition in not-so-hot condition — has that old book smell. There is nothing interesting about the interior layout. The cover is the same format that Putnam seems to have used for all their Nabokovs: a condensed sans serif with a bit of color behind it. When I recommend it to students, I can tell that at first glance it disappoints: this wordy old thing has something to do with design?

Trust me, it does.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [17]

Pale Fire is indeed a unique and amazing book, and provides a very different kind of reading experience from a "regular" novel. I'm not even sure if PF is a novel. However, I'm not so sure I buy the leap you make, Michael, from blogging to PF to design. How is hypertext --more accurately, hyperlinking--a form of design? Graphic design? Please don't say "user experience"! Hyperlinking isn't really any form of static design, though one could say that links do have to remain static in the sense that URLs cannot change once a link is coded.

If you mean PF is a form of design in the generic sense of design as a plan, then all narrative is design, but yeah and? And then, how is any book with an index different from hypertext? PF may be the first work of fiction to have an index (ie, be internally cross-ref'd and "linked"), but certainly not the first to play with intertextuality. Once I get to using the word "intertextuality" I know I've said enough.

This is an aside — hopefully one that will not sidetrack Michael's provocative reading of this important novel.

BUT your "first edition in not-so-hot condition (with) that old book smell" could have been a $700 book if you had not spent so much time reading it. See Bauman Rare Books.

More interestingly, there is the question of how a designer might design such an innovatively structured "novel." The only meaningful attempt is by Andrew Hoyem of the Arion Press. His 1994 edition (200 copies priced at $600, and long out of print) separated the poem from the commentary and index: "We solved by internal evidence one of the mysteries of the book by establishing for the first time the lineation of the poem so that the small volume conforms to the set of index cards described as its manuscript in the novel."

I believe "internal evidence" may be closer to conjecture, but it is in fact a beautiful book.
William Drenttel

Regrettably, I'm not a member of the Nabokov cult (yet?) so I have to suggest that 'Pale Fire' has at least one antecedent.

Flaubert's 'Bouvard and Pécuchet' is the satiric story of two bourgeois clerks who, after Bouvard inherits a fortune, endeavor to learn the totality of human knowledge through dictionaries and books. Each attempt at farming, distilling, medicine, etc. results in utter disaster. The result of a couple decades of planning; Flaubert never finished but did leave an outline of the intended narrative.

The companion project was the 'Dictionary of Received Ideas': a kind of Devil's Dictionary which mocked common bourgeois knowledge and the fabric of its chit chat.

LEARNED, THE: Make fun of them. All it takes to be learned is a good memory and hard work.

The criticism flows in both directions. Bouvard and Pécuchet are stupid enough to think they can learn by reading the work of experts, and the 'Dictionary' that helps you speak like an expert is merely superficial. One work mirrors the other.

On the other hand, I find the issue of Design in relation to blogs and hypertext much more interesting. My experience of reading blogs is usually one of unfocused distraction; something I rarely equate with Design.

It requires further reflection.
M Kingsley

I agree with HH that hypertext in and of itself is not really design, and with M Kingsley that "user experience" in the hypertextual world is often one of "unfocused distraction." I would argue that in this context, Nabokov's control of the medium in Pale Fire, all in the service of a very focused narrative, transforms it into a kind of hyperdesign.

Imagining the author's intent is a tricky business, but armies of PF fanatics starting with Mary McCarthy have been doing just that for 30 years. Although the book can be read many different ways, I always have the sense that VN somehow planned each of those different ways.

Indeed, defining design as a plan lets us call nearly everything design, which isn't very helpful. What impresses me about Pale Fire -- and one of the reasons I see it as a design achievement -- is that it brings to bear a degree of planning to a medium that seems born to resist it, and it all works so beautifully.

I have to admit, there is also something about the artifice of Nabokov working within a "received form" (Foreword, Poem, Commentary, Index) --as opposed to with just a blank piece of paper -- that seems designerly to me. (I know, that would define sonnets and limericks as design too: forgive me,)

Finally, Bill, thanks for the link to the Arion Press edition. It makes me wonder if other designers have tried to figure out ways to expose the mechanics of PF. Hard to believe there aren't some prototype hypermedia applications of it out there somewhere.
Michael Bierut

Re the Arion edition, I'm not sure, as a reader, I want a book designer solving ANY of a books' mysteries for me!! I say that as a book designer myself. That's like a chef saying, Here's a beautiful cake--I ate some of the frosting for you. Granted it's a specialized edition, but still. Crystal goblet and all that.

Also of interest is Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, published just 3 years after PL. The main story (for lack of a better term) is chapters 1-56, and the remaining 100 or so chapters can be "ignored with a clear conscience" (at the author's suggestion!), or you can read it in a prescribed sequence, moving back and forth within the book. The extra 100 chapters end up shuffled into the main story but out of sequence. It's intentionally not as tight or circular as PF, but makes for a new reading experience all the same.

Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is often cited in discussions about hypertext and proto-hypertext literature. It predates PF by about two hundred years. When read straight through, the narrative digressions take the reader on a meandering path that resembles hypertextual linking. There are a few hypertextual versions of the book available on the Web that enable the reader to trace his own path. This book is worth checking out for those interested in the history of hypertext. And it's funny too.
Jeremy Landman

I would agree about calling Tristram Shandy an early "hypertext" (it's also pretty much an embodiment of a lot of postmodern thought as well). I would also put out Ulysses as being an excellent candidate for a pre-Pale Fire hypertext (but go! Nabokov anyway).

Leaving aside the issue of hypertextuality in literature, it could be argued that Paul Otlet is probably the true father of the concept of the hypertext (at least in the sense of attempting to embody a real-world manifestation of the concept (& isn't really that embodiment the essence of what we think of as design ?

Paul Otlet: Forgotten Forefather

Chris, thanks for the great comment and the wonderful link to Boxes and Arrows. The picture of Otlet's "documentary edifice," (cabinets housing over 12 million file cards at the Mundaneum, which is described as "the hub of a utopian city that housed a society of the world's nations" in Brussels after WWI) is as evocative (and somehow touching) a visualization of the internet as I've ever seen.

It also reminded me of another of my favorite books, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. If you're interested in the real or imaginary prehistory of contemporary computing, it's well worth seeking out.
Michael Bierut

check out Julio Cortazar's Rayuela. the english title is hopscotch. brilliant hypertext form.
eric hodge

When it comes to determining a facsimile of the hypertext form in printed matter, I guess you mean in fiction writing, as of course the concept of referencing an embedded link in a text derives from the "non" fictional world of the dictionary, encylopedia, and of course the index card. Interesting to note that Nabokov wrote lolita and pale fire on index cards that he stored in shoeboxes. He would re-arrange and edit individual cards as he went.

Also interestingly George Perec invented a new index card system, using colour tabs and other systems.

So maybe we should credit those 'lost to history' archivist innovators that came up with index/referencing sytems.
Is there a credit for who first introduced the concept of page numbers? the footnote? and even the index itself?
Stephen Synnott

I've always thought that some illuminated manuscripts resemble a hypertext (rubrications, etc.), particularly those that acquired marginalia from later users. But I cannot imagine I am alone in this.

I'm not certain when texts were first indexed or who was responsible. There is a fair amount of information on the Web describing concordances of the bible. (A concordance is an index of every word in a text or group of texts. It helps the reader find passages containing a word and facilitates comparison of the various usages of that word.) Alexander Cruden completed a concordance of the English Bible in 1737. If anyone has more information about early indexing efforts, I'd be grateful to learn more. Thanks.
Jeremy Landman

Don't forget Daniel Spoerri's "Anecdoted Topography of Chance," an autobiography consisting of a deeply annotated, often recursive, inventory of the contents of his kitchen table.
M. Currie

Interesting article and comments, but a key hypertext work which I regard as a masterpiece has yet to be mentioned - Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. The novel appears in two formats, is divided into three sections determined by religion and its contents are intricately cross-referenced by use of icons which allow the reader to progress in linear or non-linear fashion. Well worth seeking out. I believe it's out of print, but abebooks.com will surely stock it.

Also of interest if you're looking for further examples of hypertext fiction - through more strictly, it's a non-linear fiction - is BS Johnson's The Unfortunates. It's published in a box (or at least was originally; now I belive it's more of a bag) and each chapter is bound as a seperate book. The author intends that the book be read in whatever order the reader chooses - numerical or not. Given there's entire choice of order, rather than a structured chioce of order, it might not be strict hypertext fiction, but I felt it may be of interest.

Brian Boyd, the biographer of Vladimir Nabakov, has moved on to the life of Karl Popper, arguably the most important philosopher of the last century. Malachi Hacohen spent twenty years on the first half of Popper's life (1902-1946) so Boyd's opus will be some time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion

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