How to Fork a Book: The Radical Transformation of Publishing

Cover of Aesthetic Programming

A fork is a copy of a repository. Forking a repository allows you to freely experiment with changes without affecting the original project. (Github Docs)​

Collaborators Winnie Soon and Geoff Cox have invited just such forks in their new book Aesthetic Programming: A Handbook of Software Studies (Open Humanities Press 2021). Publishing their book to a public Git repository, they have encouraged others to make copies of the files and develop them further. Answering their call, we have made our own fork of their book, and in the spirit of open-source development we have written a new chapter and added additional features to the text. In doing so, we are participating in the development of their book and the evolution of the codex book itself from a static product into an ongoing, iterative, process.

a screenshot from ladymouth

Code Confessions:

In code confession, we model how we as programmers feel about our own code. Extending the concept of comments in code, we take the opportunity to discuss the affective relationship to the journey that is programming, admitting to mistakes and acknowledging fears. These sections personalize the approach and dismantle the authoritarian hierarchy or boundary between knowledge “holder” and knowledge “seeker.” This aspect was essential to emphasize the ways we learn in community, revealing that the teacher programmer didn’t always know what they’re doing and may still find their way with a beginner’s mindset. The code confessions sections are expressions of humility in an effort to further welcome the newcomer. They stand opposed to encoded chauvinism, or the toxic brogrammer culture that can be so off-putting to new programmers, especially those who come from outside the dominant culture. We love how they put it at p5.js: #noCodeSnobs

Code Commentaries:

Code Commentaries model the activity of reading the code critically — that is, both for its function and for its rhetorical choices. They offer insights and inferences into what the code author is doing line by line, reminding readers that code is not natural, neutral, or inevitable, for there are many ways to accomplish any task. The selection of any one method or the process of moving between methods, architectural choices, and other structures create are always meaningful. These sections also model understanding at another level how someone might begin to read code (itself a useful method for learning to write code). All of this goes toward what we hope digital literacies can and should look like, and we admire about Aesthetic Programming: its case for code that is not intimidating but engaging, practical and inspiring alike.

How is this different than merely reviewing a book?

Forking someone else’s book felt a little strange, like we were tampering with their soup or redecorating their apartment. Most academic responses happen outside of the text you are responding to, but we had pulled back the curtain, we were inside the walled garden.

So, we felt a bit of nervousness and at the same time the thrill of an audacious incursion. We were being bolder than we’d been taught to be. We were trespassing (even if invited trespassers) — as though someone had asked us to admire their new mural and then handed us cans of spray paint.

What does this mean for the future of publishing?

The concept of “the book” is evolving and has been evolving (see Jessica Pressman’s Bookishness for recent thoughts on this). This last bastion of completeness, the codex, the monograph, was now a never-finished never-product, an ongoing conversation each person makes their own. Perhaps it always was and these new formats allow us to see the interconnections more clearly. Mark had pursued similar continued interventions with his co-authors Pressman and Jeremy Douglass when they were working on Workbench, a fork of Scalar in which new scholars were invited to clone and extend existing books (see more on that in Reading Project). And Sarah has been researching the potential of new and existing platforms to reveal the porous layers of paratexts…basically since she started reading books and discovered the codex never quite cut it. (It’s why she learned to code!)

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Mark C. Marino

Mark C. Marino

writer/researcher of emerging digital writing forms. Prof of Writing @ USC, Dir. of Com. for ELO, Dir. of HaCCS Lab