How to Annotate the World: A Proposal for Literary Geo-Tagging
An Open Letter to Developers Who Care About Books
Dear Publishing Bigwigs, E-Book Manufacturers, Augmented Reality Platform Developers,
I’m writing you because I have an idea—possibly even a good one, in my humble opinion—but absolutely none of the technical know-how or marketing savvy or industry connections a person would need to make it happen.
It’s about books and a way of writing and reading and discovering them that is, I think, uniquely suited to the digital formats that have arisen over the last decade or so.
Several years ago I lived for a short while in Sunnyside, Queens. I was reading Mrs Dalloway at the time, and on pleasant mornings waiting for the train the view of Lower Manhattan across the water reminded me of the description, in the book’s first sentences, of what I imagined to have been a similarly pleasant spring morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
Because viewed from a certain perspective, Lower Manhattan, cool blue office towers stacked atop a line of dun-colored apartment buildings, really does resemble a beach.
That, anyway, is how it occurred to me at the time, and how I still think of it, as if those words, written to describe a June day some 90 years before, had been, improbably enough, left there floating for me amidst the crush of the 40th Street 7 station.
It’s a thread so tenuous as to be practically nonexistent, but that’s one of the great joys of a good book—its manifold and unforeseeable revelations. Who can predict what bits will resonate with who and when and where and why?
I think it might be interesting to share these revelations, particularly given that all the necessary technology sits conveniently on our tablets and phones. Say that waiting for the train one morning I’d been able to tag that passage from Mrs Dalloway with my location (or, if you’d like, the date, the weather, the time of day, etc.) and leave it there for another reader who could then come along and pluck it out of the ether. Say that each of the thousands who pass through the station every day were able to do the same—to, if so moved, tag a sentence or a paragraph from whatever they were reading and post it there for others arriving hours, months, years down the line. Say the air was filled with these scraps, thick with invisible communications, readers using books to annotate the world, the world to annotate whatever they were reading, and all of it sitting there for anyone who cared to look.
Because I realize publishing is ultimately about selling books, let me first suggest that the ability to browse passages in this way could make for a marvelous engine of discovery in a business where, particularly for casual readers, such channels (radio interviews, the New York Times, etc.) are fairly limited. It could be the textual equivalent of, say, catching a bar of a song through the window of a passing car, a way to expose people to authors and titles they’d otherwise never come across.
Then there are the non-commercial aspects. During last summer’s Pokémon Go craze, I started thinking about geo-tagging as a narrative approach. In my imagining, writers could, for instance, link portions of their texts to specific physical locations (or, again, to days, times of days, and so on) where readers could find them, allowing for a sort of geographic serialization.
I still like the idea, and I’m sure writers would do all sorts of fascinating things with it were someone to make it possible. But even more, I’d like to see what readers would do with this capability.
There are so many things we struggle not just to express but to even grasp the shape of, thoughts and feelings and intuitions blowing through us constantly. Great writing can capture and crystalize these sentiments, forming them into things we can identify and contemplate and in some ways better understand. What I want is to be able to cast those bits outward, to swap them back and forth with anyone else whose mind happens to be vibrating at a like frequency.
In one of his addresses as poet laureate, Joseph Brodsky said that “by failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman or the charlatan.” Poetry, literature, are higher forms of communication. They allow us to more accurately, more precisely, more deeply describe and engage with the world. We can’t all (or any of us) be Joseph Brodsky—or Virginia Woolf, to return to my first example—but we might on occasion borrow their words to say the things that we can’t with our own.