Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, all budding English majors at my university were required to take a course called Foundations of Literature. The class was part
Cliffs Notes, part literary boot camp, and our affable drill sergeant was Laird Barber, an English professor in the classic mold: tweedy, ruddy, portly, well-traveled, and equipped with a pipe. His generous intelligence and deep-as-marrow grasp of the world’s great literatures were sometimes derailed, at least in his lectures, by…yes, you guessed it…absentmindedness.

Foundations of Lit was predicated on the simple idea that reading classic literature is a dependent-clause, networked experience. Understanding literature is only possible when the reader can navigate and make sense of mazy thickets of references to other, earlier works of literature which the work in question draws from, is based upon, satirizes, winks at, offers wry commentary about, worships, excoriates, or otherwise mentions. Works of literature don’t exist in splendid isolation; they’re built on the spines of everything written before them. Deep reading means getting the context set up by cultural, historical, and literary references embedded in the text. It means getting the inside jokes, hopefully even enough to laugh when the punchline rolls around. It means knowing that Shakespeare drew liberally from Holinshed for the history plays, based Julius Caesar on Plutarch, and used the Decameron as source material for All’s Well That Ends Well. More importantly, it means being able to glance and glide through allusions to biblical stories, Greek and Roman mythology (O Edith Hamilton, you bookish vixen!), and plots, characters, settings, and assorted story-furniture culled from thousands of years of storytelling and culture. It means having the skeleton key that unlocks literary puzzle-doors. It means reading and appreciating all of those earlier works, or at least MacGyvering together a rough understanding of their significance by taking a crash-course like Foundations of Lit. E.D. Hirsch took a stab at articulating this idea of collective “core” knowledge back in 1987 with Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and recommending a more systematic approach to teaching it; we’re all pretty familiar with the firestorm of controversy that followed and continues to smolder.

Unlike footnotes, which seek to elaborate and explicate off to the side—think of them as literature’s scenic detour (unless you’re David Foster Wallace, in which case the detour is the destination)—allusions are a kind of literary shorthand, where spartan economy of language is coupled with instant edification. An allusion evokes the whole previously-lived, previously-read package all at once. Like a memory suddenly brought to the surface (madeleine, anyone?), an allusion arrives in a rush, plops down on your lap, grabs your ears like handles, and demands attention. An allusion springs out fully armed and ready for action, like Athena popping out from Zeus’ cranium. You don’t get that from a footnote.

And you don’t get it from a link. Bud Hunt set up a sweet grammatical thought-puzzle the other day, asking whether hyperlinks might be adjectives. The jury’s still out on that one (you can still join in a lively debate on meaning, modification, and the permanence of parts of speech), but it made me wonder how the same linguistic litmus test applies to allusion. Might hyperlinks be allusions?

Allusions are like hyperlinks: They deliver a fully-absorbed story in a flash.

Hyperlinks are not like allusions: They deliver a story, but it still has to be absorbed (by reading from start to finish, by browsing, by skimming).

Allusions and hyperlinks are like each other: Their substance and meaning, and our ability to access them, may change over time. Websites change, are rewritten, disappear. Links break. Readers reread works of literature, suffer memory loss, experience life, alter their schema.

Allusions and hyperlinks are not like each other: Allusions function seamlessly within and are integral to the context of the text in which they reside; they modify without slowing you down. Hyperlinks don’t change the context until and unless you click on them, or mouse over them, or interact with them in some other way. Hyperlinks modify in the same way that a roadside historical marker does: by making you stop, get out of the car, read the thing, and maybe have lunch on that picnic table over there.

Set aside the fascinating English major wonkiness for a moment. This forking garden path leads right back to the 21st century literacies debate. One could argue (I’m not, but one could) that Google searching and the emerging semantic web render Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy obsolete. Why do I need to know the story of Sisyphus? I can just Google it. If literary background knowledge is partly or entirely replaced by just-in-time hypercontextual linking, is a new kind of literacy at work? If so, what is it? Does it go beyond information literacy and critical reading? What do you call on-the-fly knowledge construction plugged in just in time to modify whatever you were reading in the first place?

And how do you teach it?

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