Monthly Archives: March 2009

oulipo in new york

The most prominent members of the Oulipo are making a rare descent upon New York this week; there are readings at the New School tonight and in Pierogi in Williamsburg on April 3rd. (A complete schedule of events can be found here.) Oulipo is the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (the workshop of potential literature), a group of mostly French mathematicians and writers who use constraint to generate new literary forms. The most well-known Oulipians are the late Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec; the group, however, carries on, and Marcel Bénabou, Anne Garréta, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews will be talking about their work.
Part of the occasion for their arrival is the publication of Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop in Jeff Fort’s English translation by the Dalkey Archive. (There’s a launch party tomorrow night at Idlewild Books.) The Loop, originally published in France in 1993, is the second volume of a series of works collectively called The Great Fire of London; five volumes have been published in France, and a sixth and final volume is in the works. While the first volume (published under the same name as the series) was translated into English in 1992, it’s taking a while for the rest of them to appear here. The Great Fire of London is worthy of mention here because it’s perhaps the most extended literary use of hypertext. The two volumes published here have “Fiction” stamped on the back cover, but that’s not entirely accurate: these books are writing about writing, a metafictional memoir if you will, arranged around Roubaud’s inability to write a novel entitled The Great Fire of London. (Marcel Bénabou confronts this issue more concisely in a book of his own entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.)
“Metafiction” is a word used in criticism to damn writing more often than not; especially in this country, it’s frequently presented as ivory tower excess, obfuscatory, the enemy of American plain-speaking. The Great Fire of London is certainly subject to these criticisms: Roubaud is dazzlingly intelligent (while a professor of mathematics at the Sorbonne he studied for a second doctorate in poetry), and his writing pulls no punches; within the first chapter of The Loop, the reader is faced with explorations of the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa, Wittgenstein, and Kripke, to name only the philosophers. But The Great Fire of London is also a very personal work: as explained in the first volume, Roubaud began writing the work after the death of his wife Alix as a means of working through grief. His wife’s presence hovers over the first two volumes of the work, albeit obliquely: her death is never discussed directly. Roubaud wakes every morning before dawn and writes a section of his evolving book; he forces himself to work linearly, not to revise, not to leave anything out. The first volume focuses on his conception of his project and his writing, though there are memoiristic departures: Roubaud’s ideas about how croissants should work and how jam was prepared in his childhood in Provence; the memory of an American love affair and his tastes in English novelists all make their way in to his narrative.
Roubaud does not constrain himself to a strictly linear writing style: periodically there are interpolations, glosses on passages of his linear book that go on for a few pages; interpolations frequently have their own interpolations. There are also bifurcations: sometimes Roubaud sees another way that his narrative could go and follows it for a longer period. The reader flips back and forth through the sections of the book; to follow Roubaud’s suggested pathway (which, he points out, is not the only way to read the book) requires three bookmarks.
Here, as a demonstration, is a diagram of the first chapter of The Loop, showing how 90 pages of the book’s text are interconnected: the chapter itself is about 30 pages, there are about 30 pages of interpolations, and the bifurcation also lasts for 30 pages. Horizontal connections are interpolations, where linear text is interrupted to suggest a possible digression; vertical connections are linear connections. The complete book is about six times this length; I’d love to see a complete map of the book, though I haven’t found one yet.
It should be noted that this diagram only captures the explicit interconnections in the book; there are also implicit interconnections, and especially in the bifurcation Roubaud refers back to other interpolations that the reader trying to follow the explicit map will not yet have read. Like Cortázar’s Hopscotch, this is a book that demands re-reading. Dominic Di Bernardi’s afterword to the English translation of The Great Fire of London, “The Great Fire of London and the Destruction of the Book”, argues that Roubaud’s work is the future of the book: the future was hypertext. Read 17 years later, this feels like a flying car vision of the future; the hypertext future that everyone imagined in 1992 never really arrived.
Roubaud’s work, by contrast, now feels like a deeply personal project: one man’s attempt to map out his memory as accurately as possible using the formal tools available to him, trying to smash the architecture of memory into the Procrustean bed imposed by the strict linearity of our readership of text. In The Great Fire of London, Roubaud explains how he works with a typewriter, an electronic model named Miss Bosanquet III (named after the secretary of Henry James); Miss Bosanquet III’s primitive word-processing capabilities allowed him to edit one line of text before it was printed. With The Loop, Roubaud started composing using a Mac. The results are obvious as soon as one opens the book: text is bolded, italicized, and underlined, and the type size changes. The Loop is primarily about Roubaud’s childhood, but it’s also necessarily an exploration of how writing can approach the problem of mapping memory, and, by extension, how technology changes writing. The problem for the reader of Roubaud is that technology changes reading as well: we’re left trying to catch up.

design and dasein: heidegger against the birkerts argument

Here and elsewhere in the blogosphere, much ink has been spilled — or rather, many pixels generated — regarding Sven Birkerts’s “Resisting the Kindle,” which contends that the e-reader’s rise augurs ill for our ability to contextualize information. The argument hinges on a conditional premise, the soundness of which I doubt: “If … we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button … [then] we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another.” At his most dystopian, Birkerts foresees “an info-culture … composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call.”
Birkerts’s skepticism seems more an indictment of human nature than of the Kindle itself, and I think his assumptions about our capacity to “replace” are misguided. In defending or repudiating his stance, bloggers have invoked everyone from McLuhan to Pascal to Derrida. Bearing this continental mélange in mind, I’d like to call to the stand Herr Martin Heidegger, existentialist and phenomenologist par excellence.
Don’t worry — I’ll try to keep this painless.
In his seminal Being and Time, Heidegger considers equipment and utility: how we relate to our tools, how the tools relate to one another, and how a network of tools mitigates our surroundings. “Equipment,” he avers, “can genuinely show itself only in dealings cut to its own measure” (98).* Well-designed tools possess something he dubs “readiness-to-hand.” Roughly defined, the more something is suited to the use it is made for, the more ready-to-hand it becomes. Readiness-to-hand entails a kind of integration with the environment, an invisibility; the tool belongs so much in the world that we seldom realize we’re using it as we work. So that we may gape at his obscurity, here’s how Heidegger puts it:

The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work — that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is encountered. (99)

Consider, for example, a computer keyboard. When I type on mine, I’m ordinarily unaware of it. Since it’s well-designed and fully functioning, I have no phenomenological reason to take notice of its existence — instead, I concentrate on what I’m typing. The keyboard is incorporated in my location, existing in tandem with my monitor, my lamp and, yes, the intimidating paperback edition of Being and Time resting on my desk.
Of course, if the keyboard broke, or if it were inherently flawed, this wouldn’t be the case, and it’s for this reason that Heidegger introduces “obtrusiveness,” one way of distinguishing between well-wrought equipment and defective tools. The latter make us increasingly aware of their presence and less at ease in our environs; they simply don’t seem to fit into the world as we’ve constructed it. This is the last time I’ll quote our man:

When we notice what is un-ready-to-hand, that which is ready-to-hand enters the mode of obtrusiveness. The more urgently we need what is missing, and the more authentically it is encountered in its un-readiness-to-hand, all the more obtrusive does that which is ready-to-hand become — so much so, indeed, that it seems to lose its character of readiness-to-hand. It reveals itself as something just present-at-hand and no more, which cannot be budged without the thing that is missing. The helpless way in which we stand before it is a deficient mode of concern, and as such it uncovers the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of something ready-to-hand. (103)

Onto Birkerts, then. The Kindle may feel, at present, isolated and bereft of context, but this is because its readiness-to-hand is concealed by a lack. Something is missing, or, to use Heidegger’s jargon, “obtruding.” Birkerts maintains that the issue is one of context, but this is perhaps irrelevant. What matters is not the nature of what’s missing but that something is missing at all. In Heidegger’s philosophy, people will resist imperfect equipment, especially when its faults obtrude upon their interactions with the world.
If designers solve the Kindle’s problems — whatever they may be — satisfactorily, e-readers could supplant traditional, printed books. We might, that is, come to use the Kindle for identical tasks, in otherwise identical environments, and so enable a radical shift in information access without surrendering anything. But if designers can’t remedy this sense of Heideggerian obtrusiveness, then the risk of wholesale displacement is practically nil. Unless its successor is fully accommodating, the “delivery system” will not be replaced. What obtains for e-readers instead will be tenuous coexistence at best and outright failure at worst.
Thus, the most tendentious part of Birkerts’s argument has little to do with the Kindle or context. It’s that he believes humanity would wittingly adopt deficient tools at the expense of effective ones. This fundamental cynicism is, to a point, understandable; much of marketing and advertising, after all, devotes itself to convincing us that what’s new is necessarily superior, and in the marketplace we’re suckers for such baseless claims. (At this point, any sticker that reads “New and Improved!” seems almost redundant.) But Birkerts underestimates, I think, the functional and aesthetic requisites of an average reader. If Heidegger is right, then the catastrophic, decontextualized info-culture of Birkerts’s imagination is patently absurd — readers won’t, in the short- or long-term, shutter our libraries just because some novel, convenient alternative has asserted itself.
“We misjudge it,” writes Birkerts of the Kindle, “if we construe it as just another useful new tool.” But this is exclusively what it is, at the moment. In order to advance as equipment, the Kindle must demonstrate the readiness-to-hand of that which it endeavors to replace. It hasn’t. Until it does, any talk of supersession strikes me as alarmist.

*These citations come from the John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson translation. Heidegger’s style, especially in English, is notoriously labyrinthine and often straight-up unreadable. If, someday, someone can endure the entirety of Being and Time on a Kindle, I think we can safely say the e-readers have won.

extraordinary book sculpture

Brian Dettmer creates these extraordinary sculptures by amalgamating, modifying and mutating books.

Looking at these images of the physical matter of books, remixed into sculptures, I’m reminded of the process that texts are increasingly going through once digitized: amalgamated, remixed, reformed into new entities.
Dettmer’s sculptures invite us to think about deeply-held taboos around the sanctity of books as objects; a conversation that recurs – especially in the context of e-readers – around discussion of digitized text.

Recycling, reimagining, repurposing the cultural glut amidst which we currently exist feels in many ways an appropriate artistic mode for today. Is authorship really so sacred that remixed works cannot themselves be things of beauty and value? Or, like European villages dismantling local medieval chateaux to build outhouses, are we taking our cultural history so completely for granted that we’re in danger of forgetting or destroying millennia of culture in a thoughtless reappropriation of its materials for our current preoccupations?

Dettmer’s show opens April 3 at the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago.
(Via Boing Boing)

will the real iPod for reading stand up now please?

OK, so first of all: this isn’t an article about whether or not ebooks are a good thing. But I was thinking this morning about the now hackneyed idea that we’re moments away from an ‘iPod moment for ebooks’, and trying once again to work out why I think this is so very wrong. I’ve concluded that it’s because of the physical qualities of books. But not in the way you’d think.
No discussion of the future of the book is complete without someone saying, as if they’d thought of it first, ‘But books are tactile and sensory as well as intellectual, what about the feel and smell?’. Yeah, I like to read in the bath, I like to scribble in the margins, etc. This discussion has been extensively rehearsed, by people much smarter than me, so let’s sidestep this issue for a moment. But the physicality of books impacts on their contents, too, and it is this that makes the iPod a misleading comparison for the kind of content that might work on an e-reader.
Let’s look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today’s mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book’s dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.
Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I’m thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.
Look at the Web. The attention economy at its most feral. Whatever you’re writing, there is always better, more engaging, more pornographic or immediately relevant content only a click away. If I make this article too long you won’t finish it. In terms of print tradition, long-form writing is best; but online, brevity really is the soul of wit. Or, rather, the soul of not being ignored. Does this mean that – on the assumption that long-form is intrinsically good – the Web is ruining our ability to think deeply? Birkerts’ recent Atlantic article ‘Resisting the Kindle’ (see Bob’s post below) rehearses, after a fashion, some of these concerns; but a counter-perspective might argue simply that, without the physical constraints of print publishing, we are experimenting with new ways to communicate.
I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I’m getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.
So, back to the ‘iPod for reading’ metaphor. Its proponents generally don’t dig deeper than ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music’. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text’. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding – and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry – remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods – or, more generally, mp3s – are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit – a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.
It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.
And the Web is full of belles lettres. Now and then in my wanderings around the Web, I come across something and think ‘That’s a really important essay’. And I worry about the ability of the Web to take care of it for me: link rot always sets in eventually, Wayback Machine or no. I can’t print it all out. So how do I keep such articles? I would welcome a device designed for downloading and archiving essays I think are important, a virtual library device for the belles lettres of today.
Armed with such a device, creating playlists, mashups, collages of our favourite short works, we might become a generation of digital Montaignes, annotating and expanding our collective discourse. Blogging is already, in effect, the re-emergence of belles lettres; and while blog posts are typically written for the moment, a device that could earn the blogger a small sum (and the cachet of being considered worthy of archiving) for every essay downloaded might well inspire a renaissance in short work written for a longer lifespan.
As a device for consuming a kind of writing – long-form – developed within the constraints of physical print, e-readers are a niche product. Reading a long-form book on an e-reader is a bit like teleconferencing: it’s OK as far as it goes, but the meeting format evolved from haptic, as much as informational, constraints and still works better that way. There may be people out there who listen to entire albums, from start to finish, one at a time, on their iPods; I’m willing to bet there will a few who will enjoy slogging through long-form writings, one at a time, on a digital device. I don’t see it going mainstream. But a device for collating and archiving good, important, digital short writing? I want one.
So, please, can we forget about the handful of eccentrics who want to ruin their eyes wading through War and Peace on a tiny LCD screen. Instead, let’s bring on the real iPod for reading: something that lets me download, archive, tag annotate, share, playlist and categorise short-form works that would otherwise disappear into the link-rot mulch of yesterday’s Web. Let’s figure out a business model, an iTunes for micro-articles. Let’s take short-form digital writing seriously.
(Cross-posted from

sven birkerts on the kindle

The Atlantic just posted a short piece by Sven Birkerts, Resisting the Kindle, voicing his concerns over what is being lost when reading moves from page to screen. The challenge is to take the kernel of truth in what Birkerts says and to figure out how to extend our notion of electronic documents to include the deep contextualization he refers to.

wednesday miscellany

  • Arc90 has released Readability, a bookmark that strips away most of the cruft that generally surrounds text on the Web to focus on the main text column. It doesn’t work on every website, of course, but it does point out how messy our reading environments generally are. (An analogy might be drawn to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, in which the poet transcribed every word in a single day’s New York Times; set like a novel, the result was a 836-page book. A good deal of the act of reading is knowing what to ignore.) It seems a reader-oriented version of the full-screen writing environments in tools like WriteRoom or Scrivener. Probably also of interest as a model for making websites more accessible to the blind: this would make sites much easier for a screen reader to read.
  • John Willinsky has a paper in the Journal of Electronic Publishing entitled “Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press”: he presents a very detailed model for how academic publishing could work online which should be read by everyone interested in the subject.
  • There’s an interesting blog entry by Johannes Görannson about the Stephanie Strickland piece on electronic poetry noted here recently. Görannson notes that network-based writing practices (like those of inveterate prankster Tao Lin) seem more radical than the multimedia works than Strickland presents, which generally don’t acknowledge community ad the network.
  • Dan Green has a pair of well-reasoned posts on ideas about how text should be written differently for the perceived problem of the lack of attention. Green doesn’t believe that breaking books into smaller chunks (smaller chapters, smaller paragraphs) is likely to help anything; to argue this is to miss the point of what books can do.
  • Have we mentioned TextSound here? It’s a fairly new journal presenting sound poetry; what’s interesting to me is the sheer volume of material that can be presented in it. Their second issue would take up 6 CDs, if presented that way; on the web, projects can swell to their own sizes. Artist Paul Chan’s My Own Private Alexandria might be mentioned in the same breath: Chan has created his own library of audio books, nicely tagged.
  • If you happen to be in Oakville, Ontario, you could do worse than to pay a visit to “Novel Ideas”, an exhibition on the changing book at the Oakville Galleries. Alex Itin is showing his Orson Whales; the other work also looks interesting.