This is tech-y, ‘sausage factory’ stuff about the challenge of publishing poetry. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy Don Juan and my notes on Byron’s jokes, jibes (and evasions). But, in case you’re curious…
Laying out ottava rima verse — e.g. Don Juan — in a format that is readable, accompanied by notes on the same page should not be hard should it? John Murray’s printer Thomas Davidson made a nice job of laying out the first edition of the poem. He used a modern-roman font (high ascenders and hairline serifs: a Didot or Baskerville face?); generous leading and white space; setting only four verses to a facing-spread. Plenty of room for pencilled notes, if you like that sort of thing.
Page elements and text flow
But for a contemporary publisher limited to e-book editions, the medium poses specific challenges. You cannot use plain text such as a word-processor produces to create the text because you don’t know how your readers will view the book. The different screen sizes of the devices used — especially in the case of mobile devices such as phones and tablets — and the different possible screen orientations will probably force a ‘reflow’ of any word-processor-text to fit the current screen-size. You’ll lose the specific formatting of the 8-line verses.
Then there are three different elements on the page of an annotated, illustrated book of poetry. You really need a ‘fixed-format’ text for the verses to preserve the length and order and ’shape’ of the lines. But the text of the notes linked to the verses should probably flow from line-to-line like paragraph text. Then you want to be able to locate images in a specific ‘frame’ on the page.
The designer also needs to choose the location of the notes. If the format you prefer for the page is “portrait” orientation (higher than wide) then notes for the lines near the top of the text bloc will be far from the related line if you choose to put the notes at the foot of the page (footnotes). This is fine for, say, a journal article on a printed page where you might, in any case, choose to ignore the notes that are likely to contain less important data (e.g. citations). But where the notes are supposed to part of the experience — as in an annotated poem — the design should make them more convenient to find and scan as the eye moves down the page. Side notes, linked to the position of the note anchors in the verse are my chosen solution. But this location adds to the challenge of controlling the layout.
There are two common ways to achieve a stable mix of text and image styles (and text-note links) on a page. The first is to use styled-HTML with CSS media-queries to handle the maintenance of fixed formats when the screen size or screen orientation changes. When I started to work on this annotation project maybe-five years ago, I experimented with that approach. I could sort of make it work. But the variation in the performance of the CSS between browsers (and the variation between generations of the same browser) was so large that I gave up on HTML+CSS. At least for this project.
The second common ‘fixed format’ is PDF. This has many advantages for consistent, cross-platform page-layout. PDF is available on all platforms from phones to desktops. It’s a page-publishing format at heart; so printing from PDF works just as well as displaying PDF.
Laying out the PDF page
Now the question becomes: how to create the PDF.
I tried a page-layout approach using Adobe InDesign. Such programs may be great for magazines but I found they’re not much use for annotated poetry. I was not prepared to layout every stanza and every page by hand-fitting the stanzas, notes text and images.
InDesign and other publishing software demand a lot of work to fit 400+ fixed-format stanzas, variable-length notes and a range of illustrations onto the page. In the case of a long poem like Don Juan, most pages will contain the same number of 8-line verses; the leading and spacing of the text will determine the number. But even small editorial changes in the volume of annotations on a page or the inclusion or removal of an image that leads to an ‘overflow’ can mean you have to hand-fit cascading adjustments to the spacing and flow of the verses on subsequent pages. WYSIWYG programs like InDesign will flow text from text-frame to text frame (e.g. from page to page) automatically, but only for flowing text. Fixed width verse doesn’t flow. So the page-layout program doesn’t know what to do with the overflow when you need to bump a stanza from one page to the next (and then the last verse on that page to the next… and so on) or when the notes need more space on the page and the blocks of verse have to be ‘interrupted’ to allow the notes to ‘catch up’.
The solution? Intelligent page lay-out. For many years I’ve been a fan of the mathematician/computer scientist Donald Knuth both for his writing on computing (particularly Literate Programming) and for his magnificent text layout language TeX. I know that many people who, like me, were educated in the humanities, believe LaTeX (the macro language built on TeX) is chiefly used for composing elegant mathematical equations, and boring texts, in science- (or maybe economic-) journals. But TeX/LaTeX is able to produce downright beautiful text layout of any kind. Indeed, InDesign and its ilk rely on TeX algorithms to handle really hard and precise character and paragraph alignment, hyphenation and fill.
So I decided to layout the Annotated Don Juan in LaTeX. I won’t bore you more than necessary with details of the design choices I made. I began with a page-design — including the use of side-notes — that mimics the design Edward Tufte chose for his books on the graphics of information. I adapted it to a form that would suit a longer-format (hundreds of pages) book of poetry. Then, I chose a modern-roman font-face designed for digital publication that would work well on screen or in print: an implementation of the Bitstrem Charter family.
Still, the more I look at the page design, the more I think I could well have found a more beautiful structure had I known more about design and had tried harder. But this is Version 1.0 (after several years of occasional work). Maybe I’ll do better next time. If you have any design suggestions — especially from your experience as a reader — please let me know in the comments. I’d welcome them.
The chief challenge with LaTeX is that once you decide to compose your document in LaTeX you have to give LaTeX full control. In other words, almost everything other than Byron’s actual words (and mine in the notes) is algorithmic. You need an algorithm to determine the “printable” areas of the page and to structure the 8-line ottava rima verses; you need another algorithm to handle the occasional verse in Don Juan that is not ottava rima (e.g. the “Isles of Greece” lyric); you need an algorithm to decide where to place the side-notes in the notes column I’m using in pace of footnotes; you need an algorithm to count the lines of verse on the page and to decide when — because of annotations or images or just a couple of very long lines of verse that have had to ‘wrap’ to a second line — the number of verses that will fit on the page has to be cut. Then an algorithm has to decide what to do with the verse that won’t fit and, especially, what to do with any notes attached to that verse.
Everything is an algorithm.
There are LaTeX macros that help with all of these things (I’m using, chiefly, my own adaptation of a brilliant suite of macros designed for publishing theses and books, called “Memoir”), but you have to adapt and string them together. It can get sort of intricate:
Despite a thousand bodges and dodges, the document still compiles. I hope that none of this sausage factory stuff is visible in the output and that you enjoy reading the Annotated Don Juan.