At its most basic level, the page is a unit of measurement: the page is the means by which we classify and quantify literary texts. An English Honours Thesis, for example, is supposed to total 40 pages; the only means of measuring the length of mine, however, is by pasting the contents of each blog post into a Word document and printing that out on 8.5 x 11″ paper. Indeed, one could argue that my online thesis consists of only five pages: “Biography,” “Note From the General Editor,” “This is Not a Table of Contents,” “To the Reader,” and the blog homepage—the rest are, technically, posts.
If pages are a unit of measurement, then they function as a scale; and as a scale, pages are conventional. Digitization calls into question the scale of the printed page as a unit of measurement and container for meaning; in so doing, it precipitates a self-conscious production of texts: printed texts conscious of their publication in a digital age; and digital texts conscious of their production in a post-print era.1
One of the most overt challenges to the conventions of the printed page is Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. By slicing ten sonnets into fourteen strips, Queneau uses the materiality of his text to release latent material metaphors. As Stephen Ramsay explains:
If there are ten possibilities for the first line, and any one of those lines may be followed by one of ten additional lines, it follows that the number of possible combinations is 10 x 10 (or 10² = 100). Since that number will increase by a factor of ten with each additional line, a fourteen-line poem becomes in its potential state, the Cartesian produce of its sets: i.e., 10¹⁴ (100 trillion) possibilities. Queneau determined that a person reading the book twenty-four hours a day would need 190,258,751 years to finish it. (26)
Queneau makes this calculation based on the premise that it will take an average reader 45 seconds to read a sonnet and 15 to change the flaps.2 Though the Turing epigraph in the book reads “Seule une machine peut apprécier un sonnet écrit par une autre machine,”3 it is nevertheless the human reader who marvels at the explosive possibilities of Queneau’s book: each ‘page’ offers readers 100 trillion interpretive possibilities. Multiply that product by the number of variant interpretations by individual readers, and the hermeneutic goldmine is endless. Here, after all, is just one permutation:
The ‘grammar‘ is therefore the division of the sonnets into smaller ‘pages’ or flaps.
Another text that plays with the conventions of the printed page is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes: published in 2010, Foer’s book is a die-cut version of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (look carefully, and you’ll see where Foer got his title).4 The body of the book becomes a site of inscription, as Foer removes sections from Schulz’s page in an exploration of memory and erasure. Like Queneau, Foer uses the materiality of his text to de-familiarize readers—demanding a reconceptualization of the ‘page’ as a container for meaning, and suggesting that pages are defined by their readers, rather than material boundaries:
Confronted with worm-eaten pages, readers begin to realize
As Foer notes in his Afterword, the body of Tree of Codes makes it
. . . in no way a book like The Street of Crocodiles. It is a small response to that great book. It is a story in its own right, but it is not exacly a work of fiction. It is yet another note left in the cracks of the wall. (139)
As such, the gaps in Foer’s text constitute its potential; metaphors leak through holes in the paper—
—with material metaphors uttered in sporadic gasps:
In contrast, the margins of digital pages, like the paginae of the papyrus roll, “need not be coterminous with a computer monitor or the screen of a hand-held device” (Mak 62). Early experiments with digital text, like Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter, have only one page. On the homepage, Morrissey’s text is described as “an interactive, non-linear, multivalent narrative, a story-space that is unstable but nonetheless remains organically intact, progressively weaving itself together by way of subtle transformations on a single virtual page.” Clicking or ‘hovering’ over blue words in the text, one notes that only small portions of the page change; the anticipation that comes with turning a new leaf is subverted by the material construction of Morrissey’s text. Still, other genres like ‘zoom narratives’5 have no pages at all: the more readers tug at the margins with their fingertips, the more text they reveal; Aya Karpinska’s zoom narrative Shadows Never Sleep dismantles the scaffolding of the printed page as a stable frame for narrative. In this way, hyperlinking makes digital paginae resist categorization: how does one organize these so-called pages, these intertwining sea currents of electronic text?
- In his recent publication Book Was There, Andrew Piper sketches out a genome for the page: printed pages, he says, are windows, frames, individuations, mirrors, and folds; digital pages are roaming, streaming, and zooming (49-61). [↩]
- “En comptant 45 s pour lire un sonnet et 15 s pour changer les volets.” [↩]
- Or “only a machine can appreciate a sonnet written by another machine.” [↩]
- I would like to thank Bridget Moynihan for alerting me to Foer’s text, on which she wrote her own honours thesis this year, as well as for our many discussions of materiality. [↩]
- Poems available as apps for iPhones. [↩]