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Pick of the Day: A story told through Google Maps

Dinty W. Moore, an Ohio University professor who may have the greatest excuse on the planet to use his middle initial, might need an existential detective. In an essay that Utne magazine blogged about last week Moore writes about his strange and coincidental run-ins with the late literary lion George Plimpton.

But there's a twist, or what passes for a twist these days when even the simplest yarns have to be tricked out with interactive online maps to add frisson. In this case, Moore tells his hysterical tale with the aid of Google maps (how wonderfully Plimptonesque), recalling first meeting Plimpton as a college student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977 and encountering him a few times later in life.

Here's how you read Moore's piece: On a Google Maps page, readers click through a series of a chronologically ordered headlines in the left-hand column, each headline denoting a strand of Moore's narrative chronicling how he first met Plimpton and continued running into him over the years in various locations. When each headline is clicked, a pop-up bubble appears to right, on top of the big Google map, over the specific location where Moore describes his own whereabouts and run-ins with Plimpton.

It's a very suspenseful story with delightfully implausible twists. It starts out with Moore, then an editor of the student newspaper, picking up Plimpton at the Pittsburgh airport in his $400 Datsun, doped up and hankering for some egg rolls. Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review who pioneered participatory journalism, was invited to speak on campus and Moore was the lucky designated student with the honor of escorting him around. The story continues, one Google Map pop-up bubble at a time, as Moore recalls running into Plimpton in Manhattan across from a record store, and then years later, at a writing conference. His essay reminded me of the great 2004 film "I Heart Huckabees" in which the main character, played by Jason Schwartzman, runs into a stranger three times, and hires two "existential detectives" played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin to figure out why.

Moore, a professor and author who now directs Ohio University's creative writing program, writes with an amusing deadpan style that derives its humor and suspense from the accumulation of weird details. I liked the Google Maps application, especially since I am not familiar with the exact geography of Pittsburgh and other parts of the state. In journalism circles, incorporating maps into online stories has become a trend -- the subject of a YouTube tutorial, care of the esteemed Knight Center for Journalism, for those out there who want to learn more.

But in Moore's essay, the maps tool was also distracting, and it took me a lot longer than it should have to complete his tight story. In other words, I am not sure if the maps idea was more gimmicky than essential. Even in 2010, not everything written on the Internet has to be interactive. Right?

By Ian Shapira  | January 21, 2010; 9:41 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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