Reading and Writing in a Hypertext Environment

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 6-7 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.]

To get an idea of how hypertext produces Barthes's writerly text, let us examine how the print version and the hypertext version of this book differ. In the first place, instead of encountering it in a paper copy, you read it on a computer screen. Contemporary screens, which have neither the portability nor the tactility of printed books, make the act of reading somewhat more difficult. For those people like myself who do a large portion of their reading reclining on a bed or couch, screens also appear less convenient. At the same time, reading on Intermedia, the hypertext system with which I first worked, offers certain important compensations.

Reading an Intermedia version of this book, for example, you could change the size and even style of font to make reading easier. Although you could not make such changes permanently in the text as seen by others, you could make them whenever you wished.

More important, since on Intermedia you would read this hypertext book on a large two-page graphics monitor, you would have the opportunity to place several texts next to one another. Thus, upon reaching the first note in the main text, which follows the passage quoted from S/Z , you would activate the hypertext equivalent of a reference mark (button, link marker), and this action would bring the endnote into view. A hypertext version of a note differs from that in a printed book in several ways. First, it links directly to the reference symbol and does not reside in some sequentially numbered list at the rear of the main text. Second, once opened and either superimposed upon the main text or placed along side it, it appears as an independent, if connected, document in its own right and not as some sort of subsidiary, supporting, possibly parasitic text.

The note in question contains the following information: "Roland Barthes, S/Z , trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5-6." A hypertext lexia equivalent to this note could include this same information, or, more likely, take the form of the quoted passage, a longer section or chapter, or the entire text of Barthes's work. Furthermore, that passage in turn links to other statements by Barthes of similar import, comments by students of Barthes, and passages by Derrida and Foucault that also concern this notion of the networked text. As a reader, you must to decide whether to return to my argument, pursue some of the connections I suggest by links, or, using other capacities of the system, search for connections I have not suggested. The multiplicity of hypertext, which appears in multiple links to individual blocks of text, calls for an active reader.

A full hypertext system, unlike a book and unlike some of the first approximations of hypertext currently available (Hypercard, Guide), offers the reader and writer the same environment. Therefore, by opening the text-processing program or editor, as it is known, you can take notes, or you can write against my interpretations, against my text. Although you cannot change my text, you can write a response and then link it to my document. You thus have read the readerly text in several ways not possible with a book: you have chosen your reading path, and since you, like all readers, will choose individualized paths, the hypertext version of this book would probably take a very different form, perhaps suggesting the values of alternate routes and probably devoting less room in the main text to quoted passages. You might have also have begun to take notes or produce responses to the text as you read, some of which might take the form of texts that either support or contradict interpretations proposed in my texts.


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