Unix as literature

Updated a dead link from this article in the archives – 12/09/2010

Every now and then, I wonder to myself, “How in the world did I go from being an English major with PhD aspirations to a total computer geek who enjoys writing code, toying with Apache configs, etc?” In those moments of self-reflection, I’m always reminded of Thomas Scoville’s excellent essay, “The Elements of Style: Unix as Literature.” In the essay, Scoville explains why in his experience, a surprising proportion of Unix geeks have literary backgrounds of some sort (and read the whole thing — this is just a small quote. There are also some nice digs at Microsoft.):

The common thread was wordsmithing; a suspiciously high proportion of my UNIX colleagues had already developed, in some prior career, a comfort and fluency with text and printed words. They were adept readers and writers, and UNIX played handily to those strengths. UNIX was, in some sense, literature to them. Suddenly the overrepresentation of polyglots, liberal-arts types, and voracious readers in the UNIX community didn’t seem so mysterious, and pointed the way to a deeper issue: in a world increasingly dominated by image culture (TV, movies, .jpg files), UNIX remains rooted in the culture of the word.

This makes some sense to me. I wasn’t always a “technologist,” though I’ve always been handy with computers. My brother and I ran a successful lawn mowing business when we were kids, and we used a computerized billing system on a Kaypro my dad bought us in the early 80s. Our clients were pretty blown away that two neighborhood kids delivered such sophisticated monthly statements.

From the lawn-mowing geek period, fast forward to the summer of 1993. I was an English major at Duke coming off a really successful semester. I had published an article in a campus journal (with a dense title something like “Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and the Creation of a Subversive Moral Universe” — I actually scanned the letter they sent me (PDF) several years ago) and had placed in the annual English department writing contest for a paper I had written about Kingsley Amis‘ novel Lucky Jim and a relatively obscure novel of the same period, Hurry on Down by John Wain. I was already picking out the appropriate tweed jackets and preparing myself for a career in the ivory tower. Anything related to computers was the furthest thing from my mind. I graduated in December 1993 and went to work in the research library at a newspaper that happened to be a really early arrival on the web (back when Yahoo! could be found at http://akebono.stanford.edu!).

By the spring of 1994, you would have found me neck-deep in Unix books, writing Perl code, cranking out HTML, running a gopher, and hanging out on USENET. It wasn’t long before I was writing Sybase database-backed web apps using sybperl (before the Perl DBI made it unnecessary). I went through a brief period of writing apps with Tcl/Tk, too. I dumped the idea of the literature PhD, and never looked back (which means I can read, but not have to write papers about it).

The post from Joyce Park in the O’Reilly Radar “Burn In” series of posts really resonated with me. Though marriage had nothing to do with it in my case, I followed a similar path from relative disengagement with computers to total immersion. I think Thomas Scoville’s essay gives us some hints as to how that happens (and I’m glad it did!)

One thought on “Unix as literature

  1. So did you make it from Lucky Jim to the David Lodge books?

    I find a lot of Lit folks and musicians on the coding side. Oddly/ironically it seems to be less of them on the design and creative side.

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