Book Reviews -- Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing by Jay David Bolter / Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology by George P. Landrow

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Jay David Bolter. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991. viii + 240 pp. $49.95 text ed.; $24.95 paper.

George P. Landow. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. 201 pp. $48.50 text ed.; $15.95 paper.

The emergence of new writing technologies, particularly hypertext, has prompted a great deal of prophesying about such changes in literacy, narrative, and culture that a new form of text might encourage and/or reflect. The two works under review here, Jay David Bolter's Writing Space and George P. Landow's Hypertext, fall firmly into such a prophecy category in that both authors clearly express excitement about what this new form of text can offer. While Bolter focuses upon how the nature of literacy will change with this new form of text, Landow takes as his topic the ways in which hypertext serves as the literal embodiment of, or "testing ground" for, much of literary and critical theory. Despite their different foci, Landow and Bolter investigate similar questions: how will a new form of text change the reader-author-text relationship that defines the interpretive act, and, further, how will this new textual relationship affect the cultural forms texts both embody and help inscribe? The answers these two books provide are not only insightful, but also have the potential to destabilize many of our assumptions about the function of text and narrative in a postmodern age.

Hypertext has been defined as a fairly radical change in writing technologies because of two notable changes in text. First, hypertext is written in "chunks" (i.e., nodes, lexias) of text which appear individually or side by side (as in a Windows format) on the screen. Within these textual nodes, the writer can highlight (by boldface, underlining, outlining, etc.) certain words, phrases, or sentences that indicate a link to another node of text. For example, in the paragraph above, I could highlight the term "hypertext" or "Bolter." If a reader chose to click a mouse on either of the highlighted words, she would see another screen appear that might, for instance, include this paragraph describing the physical properties of hypertext or receive a brief biography on Jay David Bolter. Within each of these nodes, I could create further links and/or present the option for the reader to return to the previous screen (i.e., my first paragraph). This ability to link text in multiple ways--creating many possible "paths" for reading--is the second radical innovation of hypertext. Links can be made through "buttons" (i.e., highlighted words) or through direct questions to the reader where his answer will enact a certain textual link.

In the past, hypertext has been employed primarily in informational technology. Its ability to make connections across texts makes it ideal for the cross-referencing users want most library catalogues, concordances, encyclopedias, and so on to execute. In recent years, the use of hypertext has expanded into a multitude of contexts: fiction, poetry, computer-aided instruction (CAI), computer games, even some newspapers. It is the growing use and availability of hypertextual forms in almost every literate context that prompts the predictions about the future of textuality made by Bolter and Landow.

Writing Space and Hypertext seem almost designed to be read in tandem. Although both authors see hypertext as almost a direct response to the relationships among reader, author, and text created by the printed book, Bolter provides a much more detailed discussion of this point. He situates his consideration of hypertext within an historical study of literate forms, providing a much needed context for hypertext's relationship to print. The first five chapters of Writing Space provide a well-documented, insightful history of how the technology of writing--whether it be pictorial writing on a cave wall or phonetic writing in print--has the inevitable effect of organizing the reader's and author's relationships to text and the acts they can perform on and with it. …