Moderator’s note: How timely. Bryan Berry with the One Laptop Per Child K-12 project in Nepal, whom I met an an OLPC meeting last night, confirmed to me that shared annotations would be most welcome over there. Annotations are not just for high-level academia. – D.R.

annotation Lexicon Urthus by Michael Andre-Driussi is an out-of-print, expensive, and difficult to obtain book. Powell’s Books, the famous book emporium, will sell it to you, but be prepared to pay $250. Amazon’s prices range from $119 to $284 for a collectible editon.

What does this book contain that would entice buyers to pay so much? The text consists primarily of annotations and explications for a classic series of fantasy books. The Book of the New Sun is the multi-volume magnum opus of Gene Wolfe who is the winner of World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. The opus consists of four volumes and a coda that are intricately imagined and dense with allegory and allusion. The work ingeniously combines fantasy and science fiction by following the dictum of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The erudite vocabulary of the series is hard to decode even by word mavens who revel in archaisms and obscurity. Yet this description incorrectly implies that the books are impenetrable.

In fact, the book series can be read as a long adventure novel, and the difficult words can typically be given useable meanings from context. Lexicon Urthus is a book for readers who want to delve more deeply into Gene Wolfe’s constructed world. It is a dictionary of words and phrases that appear in The Book of the New Sun, i.e., the kind of information that might appear as annotations in an electronic version of the text. The marketplace clearly reflects the high value that many readers place on artfully compiled collections of annotations.

Along with others such as Jon Noring, TeleRead’s David Rothman has often emphasized the great value of annotations for text, and he has remarked on the power of Web’s interactivity. Last month he called for an IDPF annotation standard. It would be wonderful if Lexicon Urthus were available as an inexpensive e-book. It would be even better if L.U. were buyable as an integrated electronic edition that could be combined with an e-book version of The Book of the New Sun. Electronic pointers would allow the reader to switch between texts and annotations. To do something like this would be possible with the right annotations standard in place.


  1. I discovered the hard way that annotations on Kindle books are very skittish. If you move a book from Kindle memory to an SD card or anywhere else, you look bookmarks, highlights, and annotations. They may remain in a clippings text file, but they’re permanently divested from the book. I confirmed that sad fact with Kindle customer service.

  2. Many thanks to Larry for providing the good news that an updated version of “Lexicon Urthus” is available.

    Since I wrote the article above the billionaire author J. K. Rowling successfully sued the publisher who attempted to print the “Harry Potter Lexicon”. In a high-profile case with ramifications for all the creators of unauthorized guidebooks the judge asserted:

    Plaintiffs have shown that the lexicon copies a sufficient quantity of the Harry Potter series to support a finding of substantial similarity between the Lexicon and Rowling’s novels.

    E-books with annotations would definitely help to solve this type of conflict. Electronic pointers can highlight specific sections within Rowling’s works without endangering her copyrights. A proper standard for annotations and commentary would enable digital overlays that are ideal for guidebooks.

    The lexicon was later modified, shortened, and expurgated to conform to the judge’s edicts and published as “The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Harry Potter Fiction and Related Materials”.

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