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March 31, 2005 / jnolen


While I stuck in Dallas on my way home from Birmingham last weekend, I was able to pick up a copy of the April Atlantic Monthly, which has an article from the inimitable David Foster Wallace. The article had been linked around the net about a week before, but it was behind a subscription-only content wall at the Atlantic website, so I hadn't been able to read it.

Normally, in such situations, I just forget all about the article and move on with my life, but Wallace is someone who I would go very much out of my way to read. So I bought the dead-tree version, and the article was typically brilliant. Wallace is one of the funniest authors I know.

His article is interesting in its structure as well as its content. Wallace is famous for his extremely parenthetical (some would say rambling) style. He makes obsessive use of footnotes, even in short pieces and popular magazines. But the notes are almost never used for citation or support, but instead allow Wallace to veer into some tangentially related topic that any reasonable editor would have cut from the main body of the article as irrelevant and distracting. Of course, the randomness and tenuous connections that Wallace weaves together are the greatest joy of reading his work.

However, in the new article, Host, Wallace forgoes the footnotes and instead uses hyperlinks, of a sort. It doesn’t exactly come off that way in print, but if you read the HTML version (for which you’ll have to pay) you can see what he had in mind. The pseudo-hyperlinks also allow Wallace to nest footnotes two or three deep, which I’m sure gave him no end of enjoyment. It’s interesting to see the a web idiom entering into and influencing a traditional paper publication instead of the other way around.

Wallace also has a habit of labeling certain sections of his text with a sort of authorial meta-commentary. For example, in the book Everything and More, There are entire pages of text set off in “IFI” labels, which stands for “if you’re interested.” He warns the reader each time he’s about to start explaining some math which isn’t strictly necessary for understanding the story, so you can just skip it if you like. Of course, no one does, because those are often the most interesting bits.

In Host Wallace writing about politically charged talk-radio. He is careful to label in any of the footnotes that he feel may betray some “editorial opinion,” about the right-wing hosts he is profiling. Of course, he doesn’t leave the opinion out of the article, as he might if he were a NYT times journalist concerned about objectivity. Instead, the circumspect labeling of opinion makes his asides to the reader even funnier.

Anyway, all that to say: if you have a chance, you should pick up a copy of the April Atlantic and give the article a read.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t point this out: it is undoubtedly the funniest article you will ever read about dictionaries. And you’ll see what I mean about the footnotes.


  1. Raquel / Mar 31 2005 8:51 pm

    don’t you get into orkut sometimes?

  2. Alicia / Apr 1 2005 4:08 am

    I find it interesting that you knew about the article, will go out of your way to read something by that author, and were willing to pay for the print version, but balked at the subscription even with their trial offer, downloadable PDFs, and unique net-only formatting. If I remember correctly, you were also amazed that I bought a download of the first 50 Foot Wave EP (including cover art) rather than pay extra and wait a week for them to mail me a copy.
    You’re not alone either, seems like there’s a double standard in place that says hard copies are valuable, archivable documents (despite or perhaps because of their fragility) and internet documents are not (despite or perhaps because of their easily replicated, transmitted and mutable nature). Personally I think it’s a shame, I’d be extremely interested to hear DFW’s views on the subject.

  3. Jonathan Nolen / Apr 1 2005 5:42 am

    Well, it mostly has to do with the fact that buying a single dead-tree issue only cost $3.95 (easy impluse buy), while subscribing would have cost $24.95 (enough to notice and think twice about). The whole “trial issue” thing is a scam.
    I certainly would have paid $3.95 to read just that one article online. But one article is not enough to convince me to subscribe to the entire magazine.
    Similarly, I will occassionally buy a single from iTunes for $0.99, but I would never buy a full album that I wanted to own long term.
    There is definitely a double standard at work here. But in the case of the magazine, it’s the differing price points. In the case of iTunes, it is the preference for hard copy. With digital DRM’d music, there is always the chance that it could disappear or become crippled in the future. That risk is much less with a CD.

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