#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Mario Aquilina

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In line with the main purpose of the series #ELRBOOKS to show the interrelation between print books and electronic literature Mario Aquilina, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Malta, presents us in his reviews boos that reflect on literature and text. Undoubtedly, these works of metaliterature and metalinguistics can bring to light aspects and concepts that are crucial in electronic literature such as text structure, linearity of the plot and new ways of reading.

Good read!

‘The Library of Babel’, by Jorge Luis Borges

‘The Library of Babel’ is not the only short story by Borges that is relevant to electronic literature. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, for instance, may be read, among other things, as providing a textual analogy to and a critique of hypertext, while ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ brings to the fore issues of authorship and what Marjorie Perloff calls ‘uncreative genius’, both of which are central to debates around electronic literature. However, I’d choose ‘The Library of Babel’ for the way that the story simultaneously expounds both the possibilities and the inherent problems with text generation. I’d describe ‘The Library of Babel’ as a prefiguration of e-lit. Like Jonathan Swift’s writing machine in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels or Roald Dahl’s ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’, Borges’s library prefigures, before the time of electronic literature, the potential repercussions of the writing machine of electronic literature. A mechanical contraption that could have had the capability of producing the “extremely vast” though “not infinite” collection of books in Jorge Luis Borges’s story-as-thought-experiment, “The Library of Babel”, is never mentioned in Borges’s text. Indeed, “the origin of the library” is “one of the fundamental mysteries of mankind,” and, we read, it has led to centuries of unsuccessful research by “official searchers, the ‘inquisitors’”. However, even if the technology of the books’ origin and production is obscure in Borges’s story (it has to be: which machine could already have produced a total library?), the story may be read as an exploration of what the effects and implications of very powerful and prolific text generators may be on us and our attempt to construct meaning when we are confronted by that which we cannot understand. And, for me, this is one of the key sources of fascination of electronic literature. The vertiginous feeling of conceiving, or trying to conceive, the idea of every possible combination that the library contains, including recursiveness and self-reflexivity, suggests the mind boggling and sometimes confounding implications of contemporary text generators.

‘Exercises in Style‘, by Raymond Queneau

A book list like this would be missing something if I didn’t include at least one work by a member of the OuLiPo, of course. I could have gone for something by Georges Perec, like Life: A User’s Manual, or A Void. Electronic Literature is often a literature of writing machines generating texts from a series of constraints. OuLiPo writers show the experimental drive – the idea of literature as experiment — that would become central to electronic literature. Queneau’s generative and combinatorial poem Cent Mille Milliard des Poemes is a classic of electronic literature, in print. The slightly lesser known Exercises in Style recounts the same event in ninety-nine different ways, retelling the same story according to the principles of a wide range of rhetorical and stylistic modes and figures. In doing so, it prioritises formal play and highlights the textuality and materiality of the medium it employs in ways which anticipate and recall electronic literature. Most importantly, the book exhibits a celebration of textual pleasure that some of the best works of electronic literature also embody.

‘The Biography of "The Idea of Literature"’, by Adriano Marino

This is one of the most underrated books I have come across, and it should really have a wider readership in my view. I mention it here because the book is a detailed and thoroughly researched discussion of the historical development of what we mean by ‘literature’. Electronic literature scholars have often focused on what is innovative and new in their subject. They have often focused on what Katherine N. Hayles describes as its media specificity. But I believe that we still need to understand more fully how electronic literature relates to the literary tradition and how it challenges some of its key assumptions. This book is a good place to start and provides an alternative to arguments like, for example, those of Jacque Derrida, who locates literature as a specific historical phenomenon that coincides with legal and technological developments in the seventeenth century and beyond. Marino finds ‘literature’ before its recent formalization, and his work is relevant to those who would position electronic literature after the age of print.

‘Digital Art and Meaning: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations‘, by Roberto Simanowski.

I wanted to include one book in the list that, in my view, reads electronic literature the right way, or, at least, the way I think we should be reading electronic literature more frequently. Again, there are many other authors whose books I could have chosen instead to make my point, including Joseph Tabbi, Jessica Pressman, Marjorie Perloff, Stuart Moulthrop and others, but I chose this one because it was one of the first books I read when I started developing an interest in electronic literature around 2013. I said, ‘reading electronic literature the right way’ because this is a book that tries to bring the methods of close reading to a study of works of e-lit. Close reading is what departments of literature can teach better than anyone else, and as a lecturer in literature, I believe that many works of electronic literature can sustain close reading even if they may have been ‘born digital’.

‘#!‘, by Nick Montfort

I find Nick Montfort’s #! (pronounced ‘shebang’) to be a fitting fifth and final choice because while it is a print book, it is also clearly a work of electronic literature. #! is a 2014 print collection of poems that presents readers with the output of computer programs as well as the programs themselves, which are designed to operate on principles of text generation regulated by specific constraints. Montfort’s work is computational because it can be run on a computer and also because it involves computation –often mathematical – of some kind. It is also procedural in that it involves the algorithmic (rather than simply manual) generation of text in the form of letters, punctuation marks, sequences of letters, words, phrases, verses, and stanzas. However, I find #! most intriguing because it operates at the interfaces of diverse literary and non-literary traditions while also depending on computation for its existence. In so doing, it opens up a series of questions that are central to my interest in electronic literature. In which sense or senses could we think of this work as literary? Is electronic literature always meant to be ‘read’? And when it is not (some of the output of the programmes in #! are literally unreadable), what do we do with the work? How do we relate to it if not by reading it? As such, #! is a work of electronic literature that puts the spotlight on the question of ‘literature’ in the age of computerization.