It occurs to me that I haven’t written about my reading in a while, and I’m several books behind in my sidebar list, so now seems like a good time for a post. One of the books my wife gave me for Christmas was James Burke’s The Knowledge Web. James Burke is, of course, best known for his television documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, and he is also the author of a number of books. He focusses on the history of innovation, how one idea leads to another, often in surprising ways. Here’s an example from one of his previous books (quoted from James Burke’s K-Web site):
Question: How was Napoleon important to the development of the modern computer?
Answer: Napoleon’s troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper-control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.—From The Pinball Effect, by James Burke, Back Bay Books, 1996
In The Knowledge Web, Burke experiments with a cross-referencing system which functions much like hypertext links, directing the reader from key persons, events, or things to all the other points in the book that discusses that person, event, or thing. It’s sort of like distributing the index throughout the margins of the book. The idea behind this cross-referencing system is to theoretically allow the reader to read the book in a non-linear fashion: at each cross-reference the reader can then jump to one of the other such points in the book, thus following a different path through the web. It’s an interesting experiment, though I don’t imagine many readers would actually flip through the book in a random order that way. But it is interesting to occasionally flip to one of the other points in the book, and of course it’s interesting when the thread folds back on a section you’ve already read. And in any case, it is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book to read, even in a more traditional linear way.
Naturally this interconnected mode of organization would lend itself well to an actual hypertext set up—indeed I think it would work better that way. And that indeed seems to be what James Burke has in mind. His current project is the KnowledgeWeb Project, an electronic database which allows one to explore the various different links and threads.
This book came at a very synchronous moment for me, as I had just come off teaching a course which looked at the relationship between literature and the other areas of the arts and humanities (see my previous entry on this course). Indeed my thinking recently has been very much along these lines, the interconnectedness of all things. To understand a literary work fully, one must undrestand the way it fits in with everything else. But this is detailed topic that deserves a post of its own…