Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991. Pp. 258. ISBN 0-8058-0427-7

Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: a Hypertext. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991. ISBN 1-56321-067-3

From The Journal of Computing in Higher Education 3 (1992):

George P. Landow

Jay David Bolter's study of hypertext and the history of writing from cuneiform and hieroglyphics to the computer is quite simply the finest book about hypertext available. Certainly, it is the only book on hypertext with any real sense of historical perspective. It is also the only one with any sense of the way the implications of hypertext relate to those of earlier, even ancient information technologies. Like Michael Heim's Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Yale U. P., 1987), William Paulson's Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (Cornell U. P., 1988), and Mark Turner's Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Scienc (Princeton U. P., 1991), Bolter's excellent book represents a new kind of study, one in which electronic computing serves as the bridge between C. P. Snow's two cultures -- or rather in which electronic computing reveals that, like it or not, the two cultures have all along been so inextricably intertwined that they merge into one.

Bolter, who here moves far beyond his earlier Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (1984), is one of the authors of Storyspace, a hypertext environment for the Macintosh, which is distributed by Eastgate Systems. He is also a classicist, and his background as a student of culture in the days before the Gutenberg revolution provides an invaluable knowledge of the history of information technology generally absent from most who discuss computers, hypertext, and writing.

In a valuable introductory chapter that offers definitions of hypertext and hypermedia, Bolter argues that they represent only the the latest kind of writing space, and by this term, he explains, he means the "physical and visual field defined by a particular technology of writing. All forms of writing are spatial, for we can only see and understand written signs as extended in a space of at least two dimensions. Each technology gives us a different space. . . . How the reader and writer understand writing is conditioned by the physical and visual character of the books they use" (11). A second chapter sets forth the novel qualities of computers as a writing medium, after which chapters three through five draw upon contemporary critical theory, particularly upon that of Jacques Derrida, to examine writing as a form of technology with particular emphasis upon its visual elements and underlying cultural assumptions,

Chapter six, which opens the book's second section and is entitled "The Conceptual Writing Space," moves from writing (as act, technology, and producer of text) to books and other text units. Chapter six thus opens with a discussion of the idea of the book, moves to notions of great books and encyclopedic order, and thence to electronic encyclopedias, libraries, and environments, and ends with discussions of two large hypertext projects -- Greg Crane's Perseus Project and Ted Nelson's Xanadu.

The two succeeding chapters, which examine the electronic book from the vantage point of interactivity, discuss the active reader demanded by electronic text in relation to discursive and fictional prose. Writing with great clarity and concision, Bolter begins with Michael Joyce's hypertext novel Afternoon and then surveys the tradition of experimental, proto-interactive fiction from Laurence Sterne through James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Marc Saporta.

Chapter nine, "Critical Theory and the New Writing Space," argues with equal clarity and force that "in a curious way electronic writing seems likely to end the recent and sometimes bitter debate between traditionalists and contemporary theorists. For the traditional reader electronic writing offers little comfort; it will in fact confirm much of what the deconstructionsists and others have been saying about the instabilty of the text and decreasing authority of the author" (147). Bolter, perhaps too optimistically, believes that hypertext will take the "sting" (147) out of deconstruction. This chapter, which has the wonderful virtue of making comprehensible and relevant some of contemporary critical theory's particularly difficult points, represents an important contribution to the understanding of both electronic hypertext and poststructuralism. If I have any criticism of Bolter, it would be that this chapter might be longer. He brings a novel perspective to the understanding of both hypertext and literary theorizing, and I would like to see him expand at greater length upon some of his points about Derrida and others.

The book's closing section, "The Mind as a Writing Space," comprises four chapters, one each on artificial intelligence, electronic signs, and the conceptions of mind and culture of the coming age of hypertext and electronic networks -- what Michel Foucault might term the hypertextual episteme. Throughout these final chapters, Bolter, who demonstrates that writing technologies heavily influence every culture's sense of self and mind, teases out the implications of the new infotech.

Moving from ancient past to possible future by way of his own work with Storyspace and other hypertext environments, Bolter has given us an invaluable discussion of the nature of hypertext and its cultural importance. Humanists and those interested in education need a book like this as both prophecy and warning. Techies, particularly computer scientists working with Human Computer Interaction, hypertext, and related matters, need a book like this to remind them of the historical roots and possible future implications of their present work.

Writing Space, in short, is a timely, brilliant book.
Bolter's text comes in two versions, and having commented upon the print form, I would now like to turn to its electronic instantiation. Compared to the paper version, Writing Space: a Hypertext appears difficult to use, but not difficult to read, if by read one means only "read through" or "browse" or "sample." In other words, one can browse quite effortlessly and thereby sample Bolter's many fine points along the way, but since one cannot easily retrace one's steps or find one's place again within the fluid, shifting space of this electronic text, one experiences it -- and perhaps Bolter intended this effect -- as a shifting, transient, and, yes, ultimately disorienting collocation of words. Sometimes readers can, it is true, find their way by moving backwards until they arrive at a table of contents for individual chapters or one for the entire work. But, as Bolter points out, electronic text when compared to print seems to atomize, to take the form of brief sections. Since in the electronic version the contents of a single page can disperse into a dozen or more blocks (or what Roland Barthes would term "lexias), backtracking the equivalent of a single page can therefore require that one traverses a dozen screens. An equivalent to the Intermedia Web View, Storyspace's own Roadmap (in the author version), overlapping windows, or other devices, such as an easily available history of one's reading path, would solve this problem.

The print version of Writing Space shows that Bolter knows a great deal about devices of navigation and orientation throughout the history of writing. I therefore do not understand why he has chosen to renounce so many such devices of information retrieval, particularly since the hypertext environment used, Bolter's own Storyspace, apparently permits various useful retrieval tools not included, such as full-text retrieval, reading paths, link menus, and graphic Storyspace views of individual elements of a text. Perhaps most surprising in the work of an author who has so brilliantly discussed the traditional -- indeed, ancient -- presence of visual elements in writing is that Bolter here makes so comparatively little use of graphic directories, concept maps, or other devices that would serve to organize the reading space or reading experience.

Part of the problem I encountered may have arisen in the fact that Writing Space has no capacity for the reader to mark the text or leave a bookmark -- something that would compensate for the absence of these certain orientation devices. Despite the fact that the preface to the electronic version of Writing Space states that "as long as you keep the text in the electronic medium, you may also change it as you see fit," the copy I was sent for review came in a read-only form, which did not permit individual passages to be copied, and I was unable to open it from within my copy of Storyspace; without either a means of quickly retracing my steps or of recording a gem I had encountered, the experience of reading Bolter's book in its hypertext form struck me as frustrating -- occasionally even as a trivialization of his many wonderful observations, understandings, and predictions. Nonetheless, the electronic version of Writing Space, which worked with great speed, beautifully conveyed the branching, fluid quality of hypertext, and the longer I worked with it, the more comfortable this electric text became.

To George P. Landow, Reviews