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What’s Going on Here? The Harper’s Magazine Book of Annotations, ed. by Colin Harrison, Delta, 1991, ISBN 0-385-30400-5, $10.00

I love annotations. I think it’s due to an innate curiosity about why things are the way they are–the classic child’ss question, and I never got over asking it. I’m surprised that annotated editions aren’t more popular–think of it as a Cliff’s Notes side-by-side edition. While not all books benefit from annotations, certain texts these day require them for all but the experts. The English language has changed substantially since Chaucer and Shakespeare’s day, and annotations in these texts often serve as an open dictionary. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, the annotations can explain aspects of Victorian society that modern readers aren’t aware of.

The folks at Harper’s Magazine have taken the idea of annotations one step farther. Like their famous Harper’s Index, which takes the idea of rating items to an extreme, thus illustrating common misperceptions, Harper’s annotations attempt to explain the significance and history of different items by examining both the function and form. Deconstructing a complex item can be educational and intriguing, such as how to read a birth or death certificate; how a Louisville Slugger is made and its place in the industry; and how a picture of John Gotti can tell you about the man and the trial.

I just thought of a new method of annotations that is currently taking off, and that is, of course, the World Wide Web. With its ability to “link” to other sites within its text, it is a perfect example of an annotation. The only thing better would be to search for more information based on any word within a document, not just simply the ones that authors have built links into.

[Finished June 1995]


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