“There’s no doubt that Life A User’s Manual takes an approach to depicting reality that is very different from the standard realist novel, which we have been conditioned to believe is the best and most-preferred way of representing our world…Though not without its enlightening aspects, this conversation has generally fallen into a simplistic dichotomy, where realist writing is described as giving us the real world of everyday life, and anything other than realist writing is seen as directing its energies toward a vague something that no one cares to define very well.” A look at Oulipo and its legacy from Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, who recently wrote an Oulipo-themed Year in Reading for us.
I think for my 2012 “Year in Reading” I’m going to try and be topical, since I’m guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I’ll make my topic Oulipo literature. I’ve certainly been reading enough of it lately.
This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park’s excellent essay on said book). It’s, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man’s will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I’ve read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo?
If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews’s insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson’s essay “I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes” for a great analysis of just why Mathews’s rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary.
Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out.
This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec’s that has been translated (many for the second time). I’ll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story “The Winter Journey,” the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec’s strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual.
Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it’s a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we’re defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I’ll toss in Marcel Benabou’s strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his “constant flight forward,” certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira.
There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec’s dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there’s Ian Monk’s Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called “untranslatable” by him — just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of “sequels” to Perec’s “Winter Journey” that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat’s Oulipo feature.
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Gaming in literature tends to come in two varieties; the high-brow and highly abstract, and the demotic and irredeemably nerdy. Look to puzzles in Perec’s Life, A Users Manual or chess in Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense, for the former, and sci-fi literature for the latter. Historically-based wargaming has largely fallen through the gap; there is Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim’s effort to recreate the siege of Namur in Tristram Shandy but otherwise it is a hobbyist corner given little literary attention. Until, oddly enough, Roberto Bolaño’s latest exhumed English translation, The Third Reich. This novel, to be clear, takes its name not from that short-lived empire, but from a multiplayer strategy game depicting its span, of which the book’s protagonist is an avid devotee.
Udo Berger, vacationing on the Catalan coast with his girlfriend Ingeborg, is not particularly given to sunshine. He spends much of the novel in his hotel room, unfurling scenarios for “The Third Reich” and soon launching into a fraught match with a local. Reviewers of the novel, written in 1990, but released in an English translation late last year, seem to be at some loss to describe just what, in fact, Berger’s wargaming constitutes, with most quickly settling upon the notion that it is “obsessive.” That’s not inaccurate, but it’s a sort of obsession rendered by a clear kindred spirit, with a detail of gameplay description impossible to anyone who wasn’t deeply familiar with the topic. Bolaño, a known enthusiast for these very games (which also cropped up in his Nazi Literture in the Americas), clearly was.
The novel offers a deep look into a pre-electronic world of dizzyingly complex and varied historical boardgaming, in an age when games depicting the Zulu Wars, the Six-Day War, or the hunt for the Bismarck did a brisk business, whether around a table or in elaborate games by mail. The company Avalon Hill, creator of “Rise and Decline of the Third Reich,” spent four decades creating willfully arcane games, with diffuse efforts to simulate the diving speed of a Sopwith Camel, the morale of American Civil War units after a march, and the particular effectiveness of chainshot (two cannonballs chained together) when fired at a sailing ship’s rigging. It should come as no surprise that turns can require more than an hour to complete, even when all players are around the same table. A mail-in card in my copy of “Richtofen’s War: The Air War 1914-1918” reads, pre-printed “Please send me your colorful brochure describing all Avalon Hill games and Play-by-Mail kits and your exclusive gaming magazine. I swear that I have the necessary grey-matter to enjoy your games.”
It wouldn’t be unfair if this brings to mind the minutiae of role-playing gaming, with one crucial difference: the referent for historical gamers, however quixotic in practice, is history itself, not, say, the Star Wars C-Canon (the third level of verisimilitude in the Star Wars universe). Games invariably include design notes about historical accuracy and many feature separate simply historical accounts of the events depicted. In early years, Avalon Hill advertised a beribboned military advisory staff (featuring Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, of “Nuts” fame at the Battle of the Bulge) and provided a forum for heavily footnoted historical arguments on gaming accuracy in its monthly magazine The General. There, arguments over scenarios, tweaks, and historical fealty unfolded, issue after issue. If sci-fi gaming offered countless occasions for spiritual and factual improvisation, board wargaming is a realm for high-church scriptural literalists.
The Third Reich’s protagonist, Udo Berger, is not merely a gamer, but a participant in these very arguments: a contributor to The General and several of its peers, and a holder of spirited opinions on real-life magazine contributors (it might please Michael Anchors, genuine wargaming author, to learn Berger’s opinion that he is “original and full with enthusiasm.”) Berger’s contributions run in the range of gameplay, “obliterating essays by Benjamin Clark (Waterloo #14) and Jack Corso (The General, #3, vol. 17) in which each advises against the creation of more than one front in the first year.”
Berger’s projects entail substantial hours spent in solitary indoor play, an admittedly curious direction for a beach vacation. As the hotel owner’s wife comments “A winter sport; at this time of year you’d do better to swim or play tennis.” His gameplay reveries stretch considerably into the technical:
In any deployment the strongest hex will be the one where the English armored corps is located, whether P23 or O23, and it will determine the focus of the German attack. This attack will be carried out with very few units. If the English armored corps is in P23, the German attack will be launched from O24; if, on the contrary, the English armored corps is in O23, the attack must be launched from the N24, through the south of Belgium.
And so on. Much of this must sound like shorthand for “obsession”, yet this sort of thinking is precisely what is required in playing a game such as “The Third Reich.” You need not necessarily abandon the outside world entirely (and Berger does not) but a commitment of time and thought is essential to any sort of viability in the game. Just as Nabokov’s Luzhin undertakes:
At first he learned to replay the immortal games that remained from former tournaments — he would rapidly glance over the notes of chess and silently move the pieces on his board. Now and then this or that move, provided in the text with an exclamation or a question mark (depending upon whether it had been beautifully or wretchedly played), would be followed by several series of moves in parentheses, since that remarkable move branched out like a river and every branch had to be traced to its conclusion before one returned to the main channel.
Luzhin’s father, aware of these locked-up hours, comes to suspect that Luzhin is “looking for pictures of naked women.” Undistracted calculations of such sort are essential to any complex game; it is a solitary vice which would no doubt be more easily understood were it lubricious.
Berger, though, as indicated, is more than an ordinary player, and while he plots inside, his girlfriend, Ingeborg, takes up more conventional frolics, in the company of another German couple, Charley and Hanna, and itinerant Spaniards known as the Wolf and the Lamb. Soon Hanna shows up with a black eye, suffered at Charley’s hand, and Charley simply disappears. In the aftermath of the investigation of his disappearance both Ingeborg and Hanna depart; Udo stays on beyond the term of his vacation, in a morbid wait for Charley’s corpse, intensifying a flirtation with the wife of the hotel’s owner, growing increasingly curious about the reclusive ailing owner, and drifting into a game of “The Third Reich” with El Quemado, a laconic and severely burned beach paddleboat renter.
Udo, unsurprisingly, first routs the amateur El Quemado, “He doesn’t know how to stack the counters, he plays sloppily, he has either no grand strategy or one that is too schematic, he trusts in luck, he makes mistakes in his calculations of BRP, he confuses the creation of units phase with the SR.” And yet soon this formerly abstracted game takes on a very personal charge, as Udo’s macabre wait for a corpse continues. Udo, along the beach one evening, overhears someone providing El Quemado advice on the game; a figure he suspects is the hotel owner, who he suspects is opening a second front, as it were, in response to Udo’s flirtations with his wife.
Thus, Frau Else’s husband has news of me from two sources: El Quemado tells him about the match and his wife tells him about our flirtation. I’m the one at a disadvantage; I don’t know anything about him, except that he’s sick. But I can guess a few things. He wants me to leave; he wants me to lose the match; he doesn’t want me to sleep with his wife. The Eastern Offensive continues. The armored wedge (four corps) meets and pierces the Western front at Smolensk, then goes on to take Moscow, which falls in an Exploitation move.
It needn’t be explained at this point that the only conceivable drive on Moscow would originate with the Axis player — Berger, of Stuttgart, which raises a second crucial aspect of the game and its role in the novel. Perhaps lost in the myopia of the board, I hadn’t considered, for years until reading the novel, the implacably strange appearance of spending countless leisure hours in order to achieve victory not for say, Team Red, but for Nazi Germany, and in The Third Reich several characters wonder about this very reasonable question. A hotel maid asks Udo, “are you a Nazi?” The question acquires increasingly dire weight as, over time, the fall of Berlin looms in the game itself. As the hotel owner observes: “Ah, my friend, in that poor boy’s nightmares the trial may be the most important part of the game, the only thing that makes it worthwhile to spend so many hours playing it. A chance to hang the Nazis!”
In fact, Berger declares that he’s “more like an anti-Nazi” and we’re given no reason to doubt him whatsoever; that said, it’s no surprise that the enthusiasm of a German for steering Germany would raise eyebrows. This brings to the fore the aspect of gaming that Bolaño exploits most deftly: the almost unavoidable historical romanticism that attends most wargaming.
Despite the profusion of novelty chess sets, a chess piece seems most frequently a blank signifier, a store of potential for movement; a Knight rarely seems imbued with the qualities of Lancelot or Gawain. Historical wargaming, however, tends to inevitably accentuate links between a subject and its representation. Berger fantasizes about “symbolic figures with the ability to storm into your dreams,” recalling favorite maneuvers, “Rommel’s ride with the 7th Armored in ’40. Student falling on Crete, Kleist’s advance through the Caucasus with the First Panzer Army, Manteuffel’s offensive in the Ardennes with the Eleventh Army.”
Is this something only a German would do, a sign of some latent crypto-fascism? No, it’s something that countless wargamers do, and nothing unusual in a recreation reliant upon the approximated capacities and skills of very real former generals, units, and armies, about whom there are countless very specific monographs published each year (conduct an Amazon search for upcoming history books; the number of volumes on military history is typically only slightly below the number on American history). Ambrogio Spinola’s actual function in a battle might be to provide an outflanking factor of 6, but he’s also the victor depicted in Velazquez’s “The Surrender of Breda.” Albrecht Von Wallenstein may prove functionally inferior to Gustavus Adolphus in leadership points, but he’s also the subject of three Schiller plays; background that one does not simply forget. Berger, of course, takes this a bit father.
If El Quemado had the slightest knowledge or appreciation of twentieth-century German literature (and it’s likely that he does) I’d tell him that Manstein is like…Celan. And Paulus is like Trakl, and his predecessor, Reichenau, is like Heinrich Mann. Guderian is the equivalent of Jünger, and Kluge of Boll.
Is this typical? Well, no, it is mildly absurd, and yet a sense of just where Berger’s enthusiasm rests offers a captivating puzzle; is this crypto-nationalism or is it merely gaming ad absurdum? At one point, Else asks “And what does it mean to be German?” Berger responds, “I don’t know exactly. Something difficult, that’s for sure. Something that we’ve gradually forgotten.” Is this an effort to construct some untroubled national identity through fantasy, to reconstruct devastation into art, reducing war to its tactical essence and leaving out anything that is unsavory? Perhaps. Whatever the case, it’s been a pursuit with essentially no consequence — until the game with El Quemado begins and Berger begins to suspect that darker consequences may loom.
It’s clearly not unusual to append dire consequences to the outcome of a game; one can always play chess with death. It is unusual to align these antagonists with any sense of national identification; most games do not lend themselves to the practice. A German playing Germany in a World War II simulation makes for a far different landscape, however. And whether Berger’s fears are those of a fantasist recluse imagining threats or of a suppressed recidivist realizing that refashioning history might have some consequence is a tantalizing question, all made possible through Bolaño’s superb exploration of just what conflating these two tendencies might produce. An attack on Moscow might merely involve a roll of the dice, but it might involve quite more.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bien Stephenson
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.