While reading a book, how many times have you caught yourself hoping for a different development, or just changing the way events are presented? Or even the ending? Often, books’ rigid structure (both in print and electronic versions) doesn’t allow that, leaving us trapped by the author’s aesthetic choices.
In The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1979, first Italian edition 1969), Italo Calvino imagines a group of travelers who, having lost the ability to talk, tell their stories by aligning Tarot cards on a table as they wish. With only one deck of cards, then, storytellers can create thousands of different narrative lines and attribute multiple senses to each card by placing them in various positions within sequences.
Build Your Own Narrative …
In his short novel, the author from Liguria meditates on the precariousness of language and, more broadly, of systems of signs we use to communicate. Moreover, he puts into narrative some of the literary experiments that excited Europe in the 1960s.
In 1962 in France, Marc Saporta creates Composition No. 1, now published in English by Visual Editions and available in both paper and electronic (iPad) versions. The book comes with one hundred and fifty pages, which readers can arrange in whatever order suits them.
With an introduction by T. L. Uglow of Google Creative Labs, this new edition (2010) comes in a box and offers readers pages with drawings by Salvador Plascencia (author of The People of Paper, 2006), commenting on the typical components of a book. By reading and re-arranging the leaves, we realize the author’s role in composing a narrative.
A few years later, in 1969, the British writer B. S. Johnson publishes The Unfortunates. The story follows a sportswriter who, while he’s in Nottingham on assignment, deals with ghosts from his past. This, too, is a book in a box: within it, there are twenty-seven sections, and only the first and last chapters have clear indications of their role. Everything else is left to the readers. In your hands, then, you’ll have more than just one story: you’ll have 1024 stories. Beyond the themes portrayed by words, Johnson’s work offers the opportunity to think about our memory’s transience.
… and Poems …
Narrative books allow us to rearrange paragraphs and sections as we wish to realize a massive number of different combinations. However, poetry allows us a subtler level of granularity.
With A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961), Raymond Queneau triggered the creativity of an entire generation of avant-gardist writers. Queneau’s work draws upon Petrarch’s sonnet form and is considered the first one among those created by the European group Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, i.e., Workshop of Potential Literature). Oulipo gathered together scientists and artists, among whom there was Calvino as well, who were committed to writing literature under specific constraints, often designed according to mathematical structures.
Offering 1014 possible combinations, it would take more than a whole life of intense reading to go through the entire work. However, it’s inspired computer fans to re-create it digitally. In this digital edition, you can read all the poems in French, English, and Swedish. By clicking at the bottom of it, you can generate a whole new poem. In this digital edition, instead, you can appreciate Queneau’s idea better: you can act on a single line by hovering your mouse on it. I prefer this version because it perfectly catches the author’s intention of providing a balanced creative relationship between writer and reader: while the first one provides the frame and the copy, with the second one you can play around creatively and make to most out of it.
… and Philosophy
In my previous post, I wrote about Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. The print version follows the composition and production rules of what we usually call “a book.” However, in the electronic version, available online for free, Jay David Bolter breaks free from the constraints imposed by binding and exploits the opportunities offered by online hypertexts. As the page’s title announces, readers find themselves in a labyrinth, i.e., a non-linear text that they can explore thanks to the minimalist (but still perfectible) user interface.
Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013) exploits the opportunities offered by the web even better. It provides users a platform on which they can study and interact with both the book and other users. You can buy a print copy of the book. However, its website is available for free in French and English. You only need to sign up for an account and start digging.
The print edition tries to reproduce some of the digital edition’s features (i.e., signposts and references to various sections). However, online readers can build their own reading paths by starting from a definition or an area of interest, pause to consider a quote, listen to or watch an audio/video recording, take notes, and participate in conversations. This enhanced electronic version translates on the web the author’s idea of undermining a rigid, irrealistic perspective on science and proposes a kind of philosophical anthropology, which is able to appreciate multiple worldviews, even those much different than ours.
By thinking about books as interfaces, we can understand how we organize and communicate information better. However,
From this perspective, although interfaces’ standardization and homogeneity may be desirable for strategic productivity goals, if brought to its extremes can become, at least in part, a means of cultural deadening. (Roncaglia, 8, my translation)
The production of such works is expensive and requires the collaboration of many more people with multiple skills than the production of “the typical” print book (I’m going to come back on these last four words, don’t worry). However, it’s necessary to recover our ability to appreciate and welcome different perspectives about the world around us, especially at a time when our planet’s health depends on our capacity to look at and tackle problems from different angles.
Do you know more books that can help us create new ways to organize and communicate information and create new perspectives? Email me!
Calvino, Italo. Il castello dei destini incrociati (1969).
Johnson, B. S. In balia di una sorte avversa (1969).
Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns. Catherine Porter (trans.). Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2013.
Queneau, Raymond. Centomila miliardi di poemi (1961).
Roncaglia, Gino. La quarta rivoluzione. Sei lezioni sul futuro del libro. Bari: Laterza, 2010.
Saporta, Marc. Composition No. 1. London: Visual Editions, 2010 (1962).