Monday, June 27, 2011

Novels and poems and word play, oh my! (Continued)

Continuing from my last post on unusual uses of word play in literature, I want to start off with several novels that would be very difficult to put down... not because they are so suspenseful or riveting (which they might very well be), but because there's simply not a break in the narrative in which to do so.

The first of these is the one-paragraph novel "Leeches" by Serbian author David Albahari, published in 2011. Although it consists of a single 300-page paragraph, the author claims that it has dialog and chapters all contained within that one paragraph. I've actually browsed through this one at the book store, and although I do indeed see dialog in it, I was unable to delineate chapter breaks in it merely by scanning the pages.

If a one paragraph novel isn't hard enough to read (or should I say stop reading), try "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. It's a novel written in a single 130 page sentence. I don't know the exact word count. Nor do I know whether the word count of the English translation is greater or less than that of the original. But whatever it is, it can't top the sentence length in "The Gates of Paradise," a novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. The novel is comprised of 40,000 words in two sentences... and the second sentence is only 5 words long. That means the first sentence runs on for 39,995 words, and it contains very little punctuation. This takes the run-on sentence to new levels. As for the world record for long sentences in English-language literature, that distinction currently belongs to Jonathan Coe for the 13,955 sentence in his novel "The Rotters Club," published in 2001. Coe claims that Bohumil Hrabal's run-on opus inspired his own long sentence. Take that, James Joyce! Your infamous sentence in "Ulysses" that clocks in at 4,391 words is mere child's play!

It's time to segue from the longest to the shortest: the six word story. The craze for this literary form started with the unverified legend that Ernest Hemingway made a $10 bar bet that he could write a six word novel. The result, scribbled on a napkin, was: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." True or not, this legend inspired a rash of six word stories and memoirs. Larry Smith, founder and editor of the storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers and some noted authors to come up with six word memoirs, which he placed on his website. In 2006, he published a book of website contributions called "Not quite what I was planning." Several sequels followed. You can view contributions to the Six Word Memoir project on Smith's website:
I've written my own six-word memoir. It was fun. Try one of your own. If you're brave enough, you can submit it to SMITH and it might wind up in a future book.

Now for something completely different (and I don't think there's even a term for this wordplay form): Jonathan Safran Foer's "Tree of Codes." It's literally a novel cut out of another novel. It features die-cut pages from the novel "The Street of Crocodiles" by Polish author Bruno Schulz. Thus the title "Tree of Codes" derives from "T[he st]ree[t] of C[r]o[co]d[il]es"  (where the letters in brackets are cut out of the original title page). Similarly, the rest of the novel is created by cutting away letters and words in a layered fashion from the original novel. It's an example of a book as sculpture, and it's a true work of art. It's hard to describe how the book actually looks. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, see a few of the book's pages for yourself, by going to
The pages of this book are very delicate, so you're not going to find it on the shelves of a chain bookstore. In fact, I think you can only buy it from resellers these days.

Another artistic form of word play can be found in the books of Mark Z. Danielewski. His 2000 novel "House of Leaves" not only tells a strange story about a weird house, but it includes strange word typography as well. There are lines placed any which way on the page to mirror the events they're describing, backwards sentences, crossed out sentences, and other odd experimental forms. His 2006 novel "Only Revolutions" is presented as a flip book with two stories printed side by side and upside down from each other, with font sizes that shrink as each story progresses. Each page also contains a side bar with a time line of world events. Reading this novel is like watching a three-ring circus.

Next comes a poetic form of word play called anagrammatic poetry, where the each line of the poem is a rearrangement of the same set of letters. An example is David Shulman's 1936 sonnet "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Here is the start of the 14-line sonnet, each line of which is an an anagram of the title:
A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!
Not bad, considering the letter constraint. The complete sonnet can be found on the Internet and is included in the book "Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay" by Ross Eckler. Even our old friend Georges Perec tried his hand at anagrammatic poetry along with all his other literary word play. In his French poem "Ulcerations," every line is an anagram of the title. I doubt it was as difficult to write as Shulman's sonnet, though, because the eleven letters of the title are also the eleven most commonly used letters in the French language.

Finally, there's the literary output of the Oulipo group (of which the word play guru Georges Perec is, not surprisingly, a member). "Oulipo" stands for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" (roughly translated as "workshop of potential literature"). Formed in 1960, its members spend their time creating constrained writing, mostly in French. The more constrained, the better.

Oulipo experiments with many techniques beyond the lipograms, palindromes, and anagrams I've already mentioned. Others include univocalism (where a poem's words all contain the same vowel), N+7 (where every noun in a text is replaced with a noun seven entries after it in a dictionary. Or instead, every verb is replaced in the same fashion. Of course, each dictionary could produce different results), and preverbs (formed by joining the front half of one proverb to the back half of another, producing such proverbs as "A rolling stone gets the worm").

Some of the Oulipo creations are truly bizarre. Member Luc Etienne made a Moebius poem by writing a different poem on each side of a strip of paper (with each poem written upside down with respect to the one on the other side), twisting the strip, and fastening the two ends together. The result was two interwoven poems on a Moebius strip. These literary experiments might be avant garde and a challenge to create, but I doubt that many of them have true literary merit.

Of course there are plenty of common word play devices used in literature that I haven't mentioned, such as puns, alliteration, invented words, and so on. But I've covered all the off-the-wall ones I could think of. If you can come up with any others, feel free to add them as comments to this post.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Novels and poems and word play, oh my!

There are lots of ways in which books can be creative. Authors can use unique writing styles, innovative plot, unusual characters, and so on. I'd like to concentrate here on literature that uses unusual forms of word play, resulting in books that are tough to write and interesting, although at times a real challenge, to read.

First up: the lipogramatic book. A lipogram is a work that eliminates a particular letter of the alphabet from use. The most famous example of such a book, and the first such work in English, is "Gadsby" by Ernest Vincent Wright, a 50,000 word novel written in 1939. It avoids all use of the letter 'e'. In fact, to make certain that he didn't inadvertently use a word with an 'e' in it, Wright taped over the letter on his keyboard. Another example of an 'e'-less novel is the 300-page "La Disparition" (The Disappearance"), written in French by Georges Perec in 1969 and translated into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair with the title "A Void."  Perec also wrote a novel in 1972 that contained ONLY the vowel 'e' called "Les Revenentes" .

It's a difficult feat to write a novel without using a single 'e', since it's the most frequently used letter, found in 12.7% of all English words, and in about 35% of the most common English words. Imagine trying to write a novel without using words such as "the" and "are" or verbs ending in "ed," and you can imagine not only how difficult it would be to create, but also how awkward the resultant phrasing would be. I've never read either of the above-mentioned English books, but I'd be interested to read the first few pages.

As a side note, Wikipedia mentions a review of Perec's novel in The Times (of London) by Philip Howard, which is itself written as a lipogram: "This is a story chock-full of plots and sub-plots, of loops within loops, of trails in pursuit of trails, all of which allow its author an opportunity to display his customary virtuosity as an avant-gardist magician, acrobat and clown." Interesting! Oops... that word has an 'e'. I mean fascinating!

A similar, but less constrained book that I have actually read is "Ella Minnow Pea; a Progressively Lipogramatic Epistolary Fable" by Mark Dunn. It's a political satire about a government that bans usage of letters of the alphabet, one by one, and recommends substitute words and spellings. The story is told through letters (the epistolary kind rather than the alphabetic kind) written between Ella and her family and friends as they try to adhere to the changing letter ban, with humorous results. Incidentally, say the name of the title character out loud. Her name should suggest something familiar to you.

The last letter in the story, where Ella imagines the banning of almost all the letters that are left in the skimpy alphabet, looks like this:
Letter to me
Onlee 24 owers remain.
Tiles plop, 8 tiles plomp, plomp all in one nite.
Tee ent is near.
So lon A!
So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)
So lon I!
So lon R! (Are ewe lonesome tonite?)
So lon S!
So lon T!
So lon W!
So lon O twin. (Remnant-twin is all alone now)
Now onlee 5 remain at 12 o'time. Onlee 5. Onlee 5 remain.
Wear is tat paint?
Not only is this book a lipogram, but the plot also concerns the hunt for the shortest sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. We all know the old standby "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" (containing 35 letters), but this story goes three letters better: "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs" (which contains only 32 letters). Besides this clever novel, Mark Dunn also wrote "Ibid," a novel written entirely in footnotes for a document that the reader cannot see. While I didn't feel it had the impact of "Ella Minnow Pea," it was still an interesting read. I can't wait to see what innovative form of novel Dunn will come up with next.

The second unusual form is the palindromic novel. A palindrome is a phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards. A few famous examples are "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama" and "Madam, I'm Adam." As hard as it is for me to imagine an entire novel written as one huge palindrome, it has actually been done. One of the most famous is "Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo" by Lawrence Levine, written in 1986. It consists of an amazing 167 pages and 31,954 words. Note that the title is a pair of palindromes. The novel starts with "Tacit, I hate gas (aroma of evil)," and ends with "live foam or a sage Tahiti cat." Yuck. I think I'll pass on that one!

Our prolific Georges Perec (see lipogramatic novels above) has also written a palindromic novel in French. It's called "Grand Palindrome,"  is 5,556 letters in length, and was written in 1969. Not as impressive as the efforts of Levine, but I have to give him credit for accepting so many writing challenges.

Next we come to stories and poems written in homophonic tranformation, where words translated into phonetically similar alternatives (which appear to be meaningless jibberish) can be pronounced out loud to produce meaningful sentences out of thin air. In 1940, Howard L. Chace wrote a nursery rhyme collection called "Anguish Languish" ("English Language"), which rewrote familiar children's verse in homophonic transformation. An example is "Marry Hatter Ladle Limb" which translates to "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Another example is the story of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood), which begins:
Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
Read it out loud a few times and it should become fairly clear what it says. Whew!

In a similar vein, I remember reading the children's book "CDB" ("See the Bee") by Caldecott-winning author William Steig not long after it was republished in 2000. Simply by using individual letters to be read out loud, along with helpful illustrations, Steig creates meaningful sentences. Examples include I N-V U (illustrated by one boy watching another licking a lollipop), "I M A U-M B-N," (where a boy talks to a dog), and the tougher "O-L H" (picturing a decrepit elderly man sagging in a chair). Kids can have X-L-N fun figuring these sentences out.

Enough for today. I'll continue in a day or two with more unusual uses of word play in books. Stay tuned...


Monday, June 20, 2011


The last "Oprah Winfrey Show" aired on May 25, 2011. The fact that the highly-rated talk show is no longer on the air doesn't sadden me. I never watched a single program. It's not the kind of show I would ever have considered watching. Nor, avid reader that I am, would I ever read Oprah's "O" magazine. Although the end of Oprah's talk show did not cause me to shed a single tear, I feel this is a good time to pay homage to Oprah for something for which I admire her: her book club. The televised book club began as a segment of her talk show in 1996 with Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean." The club took a one-year hiatus in 2002, and resumed in 2003. The club underwent a few changes over the years as Oprah tweaked the frequency and types of selections. In total, her club discussed seventy books in fifteen years.

Throughout the years, Oprah has been a powerful force in many arenas, not the least of which is literature. When she selected a book for her club, it became an instant best-seller. Many critics have maligned Oprah for her selection of titles. I agree that her club featured too many novels about downtrodden women who eventually found the strength to overcome their adversities and arrive at happiness (I surmise that Oprah's own past prompted her to select those stories). But in spite of that flaw, Oprah has also chosen many fine titles for her club, including classic and literary novels that richly deserved some time in the limelight. She brought many fine authors out of obscurity and their books off of the backlist.

Oprah's book club also caused some controversies. The first involved author Jonathan Franzen, who publicly decried her selection of his book "The Corrections" in September of 2001. He did not want to have his literary efforts thrown into the same category as some of the "schmaltzy, one-dimensional books" featured on her show. He also felt his books were too difficult for the average reader, and I found this snobby attitude a bit off-putting. Although he later apologized to Oprah for his comments, he was uninvited from his scheduled appearance on her show. Eventually, though, Oprah let bygones be bygones. In 2011, she selected yet another of Franzen's books, "Freedom," for her book club. That time, Franzen was smart enough to realize that if it were not for Oprah, he never would have achieved the readership (and the big bucks) that are every writer's dream. He gratefully accepted the honor.

The second controversy occurred when James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was selected for her club in September 2005. Although the original book club discussion went smoothly, critics began to question the truth of some elements of his life story. Frey admitted that he had embellished some of the facts in the book, and eventually he and Oprah went head-to-head in a televised interview. Oprah got Frey to admit to the lies he told. She then preceded to take Frey's publisher, Nan Talese, to task for not verifying the facts before publishing the book as a memoir. Not only did this make for a juicy literary controversy, but it brought to the forefront the issue of what it means to call a story a "memoir." To what extent can the truth be embroidered before a memoir becomes a work of fiction?

In recognition for her efforts at promoting books and reading, Oprah has won numerous awards from the publishing industry and the book world. She received the National Book Foundation's 50th Anniversary Gold Medal in 1999. She was presented with the Association of American Publishers AAP Honors Award in 2003 for her impact on book publishing. She was given the New York Public Library's "Library Lion" award in 2006, which placed her in the same league as Jonathan Franzen (ironically enough), Salman Rushdie, Elie Wiesel, former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, literary critic Harold Bloom, and many other literary stars.

There's no doubt about it. Oprah got America reading. Who but Oprah could have gotten books by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, and Pearl Buck (even Charles Dickens, to a lesser extent) onto the bestseller list? Who but Oprah could induce bookstores to order a half a million copies of a book, title unknown, merely because it was to be the next club selection? Who but Oprah could generate sales of over 55 million for her own branded edition of books? Although "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and its famous book club are now off the air, Oprah has pledged that she will produce a program about books and authors for her new OWN cable network. For all this, I thank her.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An endangered species

I wrote the following editorial for a newspaper column at the beginning of this year. Although the editor assured me it would be published, it never was. I don't know why. Perhaps it was nixed because someone felt it would arouse too much controversy. Or maybe it was simply too long compared to the editorials they usually print.

In any case, I am reproducing it below. One thing to note is that it was written months before Borders declared bankruptcy and began closing many of its brick-and-mortar stores. Every Borders store in Broward County has now closed down. I and many fellow book lovers (even those who are proponents of ebooks) sorely miss them. I read recently that an additional fifty Borders stores around the country will close as part of the terms of the bankruptcy. Will the closing of Barnes & Noble stores be far behind? The issue was (and still is) a very real concern for all of us. I don't think we have thoroughly considered the impact that digital media will have on us in the long run.

Here it is:
You sit your grandson on your lap and read him a story from a large, brightly-colored picture book, letting him turn the pages and touch the illustrations. You watch a folk dancing performance at the public library, and while you’re there, you pick up the mystery novel you’ve been meaning to read. During a leisurely Sunday breakfast, you peruse the morning paper, work the crossword puzzle, and clip out some grocery coupons or a recipe that sounds perfect for your next dinner party. You visit your local bookstore, browse the stacks, have coffee in the cafĂ©, and buy a magazine on your way out. You page through an old photo album, viewing your grandparents when they were your age, or your first apartment, or your dated hairdo in an old class photo.
What do all these things have in common? They’re endangered activities. They involve media and institutions that are slowly disappearing from our world, to be replaced by electronic versions that have lost the substance and permanence of their physical counterparts.
No, I’m not a technophobe. I worked for years as a communications software developer, and still use a computer regularly. I own a smart phone. I use a GPS navigation system in my car. But would I buy an e-book, or put photos up on a web-based album?  Never!
Before you buy a Kindle or Nook, think carefully about it. Electronic books are merely vaporware, yet the cost per book is not as low as you might think. Bestsellers in physical form are routinely on sale for between a third and a half off the cover price. E-books are not on sale very often, and they usually wind up costing only a few dollars less than their paper counterparts. And those same books, plus many more, are available from the public library for free!  It doesn’t matter if an e-reader can hold 500 books. How many can you really read while on vacation? What if you drop the reader and break its delicate electronics?  What if the battery runs down while you’re reading at the beach? Can you give e-books to friends, or sell them at a garage sale, or photocopy a page? What happens when today’s e-reader becomes tomorrow’s dinosaur? Where will all your purchased e-books be then? Don’t say that you’d convert them from one format to another. If you’ve already read them, you wouldn’t bother to go though the hassle of uploading them to a PC, converting them, and downloading them to a new reader. And that's making the assumption that there will actually be a way to convert from a 2015 KindlePad to a 2025 SuperNook.
The same holds true for digital photos. Will Picasa still be online years from now? Will electronic photos on CD or in a digital album still be viewable then? Would a home-burned CD last as long as photos in an album?  I doubt it. How will our great-great grandchildren learn that they resemble us?
If books are made obsolete by their digital counterparts, brick-and-mortar bookstores and public libraries will most likely disappear. Could you browse through stacks of e-titles, scanning through the contents to get a feel for the writing style or contents, as you can at a bookstore?  Would there still be paper coloring books, pop-up books, road maps, or oversized art books? If so, where would they be sold? If libraries turn into electronic, Internet-based entities, what would become of their community-outreach and cultural programs?
I have a book-lined study. Seeing my books on the shelves gives me almost as much joy as reading them. There is a physical and aesthetic pleasure associated with opening a book, turning its deckle-edge pages, and smelling the paper and ink, that can never be duplicated with an e-reader. Books, photo albums, and scrapbooks can sit on a shelf for fifty years, or even a hundred, and still be paged through and enjoyed. They are memories and gifts to bestow to future generations. Don’t let electronic media destroy them.

Monday, June 13, 2011


To me there's nothing like a book (and I'm referring to the physical variety here. I abhor ebooks!) I love feeling their heft in my hands, smelling the paper and ink, turning the pages. I'm one of those rare readers who actually reads author dedications, introductions, acknowledgments and postscripts. I even read the colophon (publisher's description of the font) if there is one.

A book is an inexpensive form of entertainment that educates me, captivates my attention, and makes my imagination soar. As a former librarian, I am interested in all facets of books, including their publishing, authorship, sales, and readership. I have reviewed books on the Internet and for authors. I have facilitated several book discussion groups and am a member of many myself. I hope some day to write books myself.

My book collection is presently around 4000 volumes, although I've never actually counted them. There are books everywhere in my house, and I'm running out of places to keep them. Don't get me wrong - I'm not a hoarder. I regularly donate books to the library or give them away to others who would enjoy them. But if I truly enjoyed a book, I will keep it in my collection, even if I never have time to reread it. Every time I see that book on a shelf, it reminds me of how much and why I enjoyed it, which is almost as good as actually rereading it.

I hope you enjoy my ramblings as much as I enjoy writing them.