You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

De- and Re-marginalization Of Marginalia

In his recent Kindle lament, Nicholson Baker described how, in Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,”

the fetching illustrations by Lorenz of a greylag goose and its goslings walking out from the middle of a paragraph and down the right margin are separated from the text—the marginalia has been demarginalized

In other words, the Kindle’s format removes illustrations from their rightful place within a text. But is that really a problem? Is the main point of these images to augment the text, to decorate, or to create a meaning of their own? Might not some new perspective be gained from the distancing of text and image?

The Kindle and devices like it even have remarkable potential to make images much more than marginalia. They could become videos, interactive features: actually watch ducklings follow Lorenz instead of see them frozen at a moment in time. It’s an evolution from traditional books, surely, but is it lamentable? Or might we not learn more from new technologies used in different ways?

A twist on the use of new technology to demarginalize marginalia involves a return to the Talmud: that book made of marginalia, literally constructed of commentary from rabbis created over years and years. Rabbis comment on each other’s works in the Talmud in ways very different from the ways in which we comment on items online. The commentary is serious, well-studied, and lasting, not ephemeral.

Thus we can see that ephemerality is not an inherent feature of commentary: to the contrary, Talmudic commentary is central to Jewish law and even in a sense constitutes it. The process of exchange and evolution over time is crucial to the ideas expressed in the Talmud.

Writing on the relationship between the Talmud and the internet, Jonathan Rosen compares the vastness of the Talmud–itself only a small portion of the many texts integral to Judaism–to the vastness of the internet:

when I look at a complete set of the Talmud.. my heart, along with my brain, begins to sink. Of course, I can get that same sinking feeling looking at the Sunday New York Times or entering the domesticated galaxy of cyberspace. Too much! I want to shout… I fear, with my limited skills, I won’t even be able to navigate my way to a solid patch of the past on which to drop anchor so that I can hold up under future assaults of information.

Perhaps this is part of the problem online. The Talmud is clearly and visibly textually anchored to something historical, even when it also incorporates later commentary. As Rosen marvels, it’s amazing that “a conversation that began two thousand years ago is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.” Everything online, by contrast, is amazingly ephemeral. Nothing is fixed. A website can be put up or taken down instantly. Comments and posts can be created, erased,

So why can’t online commentary come to occupy a similar space? Of course, no one would expect online comments to become central to any kind of thought or theory. But why don’t they at least try a little harder? Even on an intelligent site (with intelligent in the very title), the Economist’s More Intelligent Life, a reasonably intelligent article on novelists recovering from alcoholism receives mostly nitpicky comments aimed at one small factual error in the article (similar nitpicking happened on a post at NPR).

Once that error was first pointed out by one commenter, why did others feel the need to correct it, too? Was the point to make their voices heard? But why, when they had nothing original to say? Part of the point of the Talmud is to expand on what has already been said, to clarify, to refine, perhaps to improve. Online, the tendency seems to be to repeat, complain, devolve. People’s ideas are not appreciated or analyzed, just criticized for irrelevant inaccuracies. It’s as though one typo renders all intelligence moot. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t. So why do people behave that way?

Similarly, a nicely researched post on TechCrunch that profiles a number of female entrepreneurs in the tech sphere has been appreciated with an all-important comment on how “hawt” one of the women is. No comments on what the women are doing, the nature of their work, just an empty observation about something irrelevant to the topic.

Perhaps, like Google’s email goggles, all comments should have an “Are you sure you want to post this?” message pop-up when “submit” is hit. Better, the commenter could be asked, “Does this really contribute anything to the exchange?” The definition of comment describes the word as “a note explaining, illustrating, or criticizing the meaning of a writing.” If you don’t explain, illustrate, or (intelligently) criticize, why comment?

Much has been made of whether newspapers should “allow” comments on articles, particularly articles about crimes and other sensitive topics. Perhaps the issue should not be whether newspapers should regulate commentary but how commenters can regulate themselves, contributing only when they truly have something to say. Otherwise, they’re just talking a lot, not saying anything, and adding to a vast morass of marginalia that will never have the impact that it could.

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Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary

One Response

  1. […] the form of original content or commentary–about something. Commentary is no longer at the margins: it’s crucial to everything we do. It’s a remix of what’s come before. In that […]

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