Code is not literature

A literate programmer describes his attempts to get fellow programmers to “read” code the way writers read literature. (He concludes that the deep study of code requires a different analogy.)

20140121-095855.jpgPreparing for the talk I’m going to give to the Girls who Code cohort, I started thinking about what to tell them about code reading and code they should read. And once again it struck me that for all the lip service we pay to the idea of reading code, most programmers really don’t read that much code, at least not just for the sake of reading it. As a simple proof: name me one piece of code that you’ve read and that you can be reasonably sure that most other good programmers will have read or will at least have heard of. Not many, right? Probably none.
But then it hit me. Code is not literature and we are not readers. Rather, interesting pieces of code are specimens and we are naturalists. So instead of trying to pick out a piece of code and reading it and then discussing it like a bunch of Comp Lit. grad students, I think a better model is for one of us to play the role of a 19th century naturalist returning from a trip to some exotic island to present to the local scientific society a discussion of the crazy beetles they found: “Look at the antenna on this monster! They look incredibly ungainly but the male of the species can use these to kill small frogs in whose carcass the females lay their eggs.” –Peter Seibel, Code is not literature.