August 18, 2015
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Encyclopedic Hypertext: A Bubbe Meisse?

I’m working on a big Storyspace project, one that involves revisiting past broils and former controversies. One is Janet Murray’s assertion that digital media are inherently inclined to be encyclopedic. I think that this seems to self-evident that it has seldom been questioned, but it the encyclopedic impulse inherent in the digital, or merely inherent in text?

In any case, very little has been written about the craft of this encyclopedic impulse, about mastering it in the service of the story. Murray’s own view

When the encyclopedic affordance is appropriately exploited, large information resources are semantically segmented at multiple levels of granularity, sorted, classified, and labeled with controlled vocabularies. When informational spaces or virtual worlds are well organized with clear boundaries, consistent navigation, and encyclopedic details that reward exploration they create the experience of immersion.

is a list of Information Architectural virtues, but these virtues are very much at odds with the impulse. The impulse, if it exists, calls for grand vista of vast information spaces, complex and subtle, in which we can lose ourselves; clear boundaries and consistent navigation are something else entirely. We’re arguing that nature in all its wild exuberance and its terrible sublimity is the true subject of art, and so we should all go into the back yard and do some gardening.

The Yiddish bubbe meisse means a silly story or wishful fantasy. Most people think “bubbe” here is the word from “grandmother” but it’s not: it’s Sir Bevis from the Arthurian cycle, showing up in the shtetl where you wouldn’t really expect him. Go figure.

Anyway: how do we master the encyclopedic impulse without being sucked into the endless task of creating an infinite world in infinite detail?

The most straightforward approach to blending narrative and annotation is the Parsifal story, that memory of ritual initiation in which the hero sees a succession of wonders – often frightening, always incomprehensible – which he comes eventually to understand and, in understanding, comes into adulthood. This is the story of going walkabout, of Lyra’s harrowing of Hell, of The Magic Flute, of True Grit and of The Road To Oxiana.

The Parsifal Story integrates the encyclopedic impulse with narrative by entwining them twice. First, our natural expectation calls for a journey followed by exposition of the marvel we will witness. Afterward, we will journey again, and again we expect a new wonder. Exposition of the marvel we have worked to see is not here an interruption in the story, but becomes a goal of the story, part of what we and the hero are seeking. Moreover, because we understand that the end requires understanding, not simply witnessing, these marvels, the hero’s struggle to decipher and interpret itself becomes a narrative.

The very convenience of this narrative device is its chief drawback: readers who recognize Parsifal perceive the puppet master behind the characters and naturally resent the master’s manipulations. Why should we sit through this long stream of phony perils and mumbo jumbo? If you’ve got knowledge to impart, why not get on with it? The Yiddish term for a silly story, one only a child would sit still for, is bubbemeise from Sir Bevis, another Parsifal story.

One way to justify Parsifal is to disable the hero, to so limit their agency that they can do little more than witness and interpret. In True Grit, Mattie Ross is a child and a woman in a man’s world. In Pry, the electronic novella by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, the hero is paralyzed: all he can do is witness and remember. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley is old, retired, cast out, a former spy called in to clean up a small mess.

Finally, when considering the Parsifal structure in hypertext, keep in mind that Parsifal often requires progressive revelation. The psychological impact of the mystery, for example, depends not on our assembling clues and performing deduction, but rather on the hero’s ultimately-successful effort to repair (at least partially) a breach in the world’s proper order. The clues might come in any sequence but the clues don’t matter: what matters is the progressive impact of growing knowledge (both of the rupture and its cure) on the hero. That progress is linear.

From the new Storyspace project. Comments, corrections, suggestions, and cries of pain and outrage all embraced: Email me.