The Power of Literate Programming for Efficient Code

The concept of literate programming as proposed by Donald Knuth, the benefits of using it in terms of readability, maintenance, and efficiency, its implementation in Jupyter notebooks and how it can be underutilized, as well as an introduction to a literate programming tool called Quarto.

Lucas A. Meyer


April 5, 2023

Literate programming is a concept that was proposed by Donald Knuth, a computer scientist who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of computer science. The idea behind literate programming is to write computer programs in a way that is more like natural language than like machine language. This means that the code is organized in a way that makes it easy for humans to read and understand, rather than being optimized for machine processing.

I first learned about literate programming when I was mostly programming in C. At the time, I used two utilities, CWeave and CWeb, to mix C and LaTeX content. This allowed me to write programs in a way that was much easier to read and understand than if I had just written the code itself. The result was that my code was much easier to maintain, and I was able to work more efficiently.

Today, most people take literate programming for granted with Jupyter notebooks. However, they take things so much for granted that I see many Jupyter notebooks that only have code, some barely have comments. As an experienced programmer, I know that one of the main readers of my code is myself a few months or years later. That’s why it’s so important to me to write code that is clear and easy to understand.

Since I started using literate programming as it’s supposed to be used, my life of maintaining my own months-old code got a lot better. By writing in a style that is more like natural language, and by organizing my code in a way that makes sense to humans, I’m able to work more efficiently and effectively. If you use literate programming tools like Jupyter notebooks but don’t know the concept, Wikipedia is a good place to start

The best current example of literate programming is Quarto, which is the tool I used for this blog and for a lot of my projects. I have been so busy that I haven’t kept up-to-date with the latest release (1.3). If you don’t know it yet, I suggest you check it out. It’s a great tool, and it’s free and open source.