Original Document

What is Literature (Part of The Literary Machine)

A Ted Nelson's text.

Literature is an ongoing system of interconnecting documents

The literary Paradigm

Our design is suggested by the one working precedent that we know of: literature.

A piece of writing - say, a sheet of typed paper on the table - looks alone and independent. This is quite misleading. Solitary it may be, but it may be also part of a literature.

By the term "a literature" we are not necessarily talking about belles lettres or leather-bound books. We mean it in the same broad sense of "scientific literature", or that graduate-school question, "Have you looked at the literature?".

A literature is a system of interconnected writings. We do not offer this as our definition, but as a discovered fact. And almost all writing is part of some literature.

These interconnections do not exist on paper except in rudimentary form, and we have tended not to be aware of them. We see individual documents but not the literature, just as people see other individuals but tend not to see the society or culture that surround them.

The way people read and write is based in large part on these interconnections.

A person reads an article. He or she says to himself or herself, "Where have I seen something like that before? Oh, yes -- and the previous connection is brought mentally into play.

The Web of Connections in Science

Consider how it works in science, and the day-to-day activities of an individual scientist, let's say a genetic theorist. She reads current articles in the journals. These articles refer back, explicitly, to other writings; if our genetic theorist chooses to question the sources, or review their meaning, she is following links as she gets the books and journals and refers to them. Our genetic theorist may correspond with colleagues, mentioning what she has read, and receiving replies suggesting other things to read. (This correspondence, too, is thus connected to these other writings by implicit links.)

Say that our scientist, seeking to refresh her ideas, goes back to reading Darwin. She also derives inspiration from other things she reads - the Bible, science fiction. These too link up to work going on in her mind.

Now writing, our scientist quotes and cites the things she has read in her own articles. (These links are explicit.) Other readers, taking interest in her sources, read the source documents for these quotes and citations (following the links).

And so it goes on. Our Western cultural tradition is a great procession of writings, all with links implicit and explicit between them.

Writings in principle remain continuously available - both as recently quoted, and in their original inviolable incarnations - in a great procession.

Controversy and shifting Viewpoint

Everyone argues over the interpretation of former writings, even the geneticist of our example. One author will cite a passage in Darwin to prove Darwin thought one thing, another will find another passage to try to prove he thought another.

And views of a field, and the way a field's own past is viewed within it, change. A formerly forgotten researcher may come to light (like Mendel), or a highly respected researcher may be discredited (like Cyril Burt). And so it goes, on and on. The past is continually changing - or at least seems to be, as we view it.

There is no predicting the use future people will make of what is written. Any summary we write today embodies a particular view: the perspective of a particular individual (or school of thought) at a particular time. We cannot know how things will be seen in the future. We must assume there will never be a final and definitive view of anything.

And yet this system functions.

Literature is debugged