Thursday, July 19, 2012

Composition No. 1: a Review (Sort Of)

In 1962, French author Marc Saporta published a book entitled Composition n° 1, which was published in English (as Composition No. 1) in 1963 in a translation by Ron Howard. What made the book unusual was its format. It consisted of 150 separate, unnumbered pages, which
The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as at a fortuneteller’s. The order the pages then assume will orient X’s fate. (Composition No. 1, instructions)

This is not, in and of itself, a unique idea, although Saporta's novel takes it to a rather unusual extreme; he was also one of the first to try it, with others following him.* But it was unusual, and got a lot of attention -- more commented on than read, is my impression. It went quickly out of print, and was hard to find, since libraries tended either to not bother with the thing or to make it an uncirculating rarity (as at the Cornell library, for instance), presumably due to its odd format.**

Fortunately for those of us who like offbeat literature, it was brought back into print last year in what sounds like a gorgeous edition by the press Visual Editions, which seems to specialize in off-beat, oddly-formatted books. Unfortunately for those of us who aren't paid six-figure salaries for doing no work, it was priced at $40.

Fortunately, Visual Editions was kind enough, and smart enough, to put out an iPad version, which is only $5. So I bought that.

And, unfortunately, it's terrible.

Not the book -- although what I've read of it doesn't inspire me to shell out $40 for a version that I can actually manage to read in a non-annoying way. No, I'm talking about the iPad app.

The rest of this post is a review, not of Saporta's text, but of Visual Edition's electronic presentation of it. If you're curious about Saporta's text, I recommend Derik A. Badman's review, Jonathan Coe's review, and various others you can find online. Good pictures of the print edition -- which everyone seems to think was fabulously designed -- can be found here and here.

The basic app is functional enough, with a fair number of extraneous and not all that interesting bells and whistles. It has an opening title page where you can move the letters of the title, author, etc around like a refrigerator magnet -- although they also move on their own, which makes it slightly irritating. (I haven't yet given it to my three-and-a-half-year-old son -- maybe he'd love that function.) There's a "disruptive typographic artwork" using all the letters from the text, which is pretty enough, but doesn't have much to do with Saporta's novel. There's the video trailer for the print edition. And there's an introduction to the book itself Tom Uglow, who seems to be a google/youtube muckity-muck. All well and good, and as bells-and-whistles for an otherwise functional app it would be unremarkable.

The irritation begins when you actually want to read Saporta's text.

First of all, Saporta's original introduction -- the description of the text and the instructions for use -- isn't given. At all. Now, this isn't a fatal omission -- you can find it online (Derik Badman conveniently reprints it, for instance.) But frankly you shouldn't have to. If you want to add a new intro, fine, live it up. But a republication should include the whole book -- and an author's introduction is a clear part of that, especially in this instance.

But that, too, would be ignorable, if the text weren't presented in such a !@#$% annoying way.

Here's how it works. You click the "begin" button on the introductory page -- and you start to see a random flickering of 150 pages scrolling by. To stop it you touch the screen -- and you have a page which you can read. But! If you pick up your finger, it instantly starts to scroll again. That's true whether you're done, or you twitch (or have to scratch or get jumped on by a three and a half year old), or your finger muscles get tired and you try to switch fingers. And if you weren't finished the page, too bad, because there's no way to go back: if you want to re-find a page you have to restart the randomized scrolling (restart, because it is set up not to repeat a page you've already seen***) and keep hitting pages randomly until you happen on it. Otherwise it's gone. Oh, and if you miss half a page and go back, rerandomize and find it? You've lost the earlier order -- which you might be a hundred pages into -- and have to go through an entirely new random order, with old and new pages mixed in. There's no way to save an order, to return to an old order, to keep a page still without holding a finger on it the whole time, or go back to an earlier page to check something you already read. That's all impossible.

Now, to be fair, I knew all this going in -- some of the reviews I read of the app mentioned it, either as a drawback or in a 'its-probably-good-in-some-experimental-literary-sense' way. But knowing it is one thing; actually envisioning how irritating it is going to be, how much it is going to mess with the reading experience, is another thing.

What really galls me is that this is not any part of Saporta's design. If a writer wanted to write a book like this -- with the inaccessibility of the previous pages and orders, the possibility of loosing half a page from a momentary lapse of attention, and so forth, built into the conception of the thing -- then I could get into the idea, and at least tell myself that that was the experience I was supposed to be having. But a moment's thought will reveal that all of these features are extra aggravations not in the print edition.

Obviously, once you shuffle the cards into a new order, you loose the old one and can't go back to it (there are no page numbers or anything else that would make recording the old order easy), and I suppose it's always possible to drop the entire deck. So in that sense some of the app's frustrations are recreations of the original. But most aren't. In a shuffled deck of cards, there's nothing to stop you from going back to old cards; nothing to stop you from stopping your reading halfway through a page and then starting it again,**** whether the break is for a second or a decade. You can flip ahead and back, keep the order as long as you like -- even read the book twice through in the same order. You can deliberately lay out the cards and choose an order for them -- switching the random order into a preferred one, in a specific local instance, or globally. Hell, if you're willing to go to the trouble, you could even record the order (writing down opening words) and restore it later. It is, in short (and I'm guessing here, based on descriptions of the thing -- I've never seen a physical copy save in photographs) far less of a pain in the ass to read, a book which gives you many possibilities the iPad app denies.

And there's no earthly reason this had to be the case. Why not simply have the "begin" button put the pages in an order -- and then let the reader slide back and forth (as in the iBooks or Kindle apps) in that order as often as they like --- and even, heaven forfend, lift their finger up from the page without it swirling off? Ideally, that order would hold even if you want to go back and reread the intro, quit the application, or whatever... until a "shuffle" button were hit again, and the order was randomized once more. Again: I'm not suggesting lessening Saporta's experimental design; I'm suggesting faithfully recreating it, rather than adding to it in ways he never intended or imagined.

So why did they do it? Presumably some theoretical idea about emphasizing the randomness of the text, enhancing the aleatory nature of the experience. Or something. But frankly, as far as I'm concerned, it's bullshit: it turns an actually aleatory text into an unreadable one.

Now, in my personal opinion, it would be nice if etexts added new functionality rather than just recreating the old. Which is to say, with a deck of cards, there's no easy way to remember an old order after shuffling up a new one. But in the ebook version it'd be easy to have each order remembered (if the reader wished) so that you could read one, read another, and then go check something in the first version. I think that'd be neat. Here, of course, I can see plausible theoretical objections -- since this isn't something Saporta intended -- but personally I'd be in favor of adding an ability and then allowing readers not to use it, rather than denying it. But I can see why some people would disagree.

But not giving you the options the physical book gives you? Not letting you even read the text without holding a finger on the page? That's just lousy design.

And frankly it made the book essentially unreadable for me.

Again, to be fair, I'd probably have persisted despite this if what I did read of it grabbed me. I read at least a dozen pages in their entirety, and part of another dozen or two more (usually because I lost my place halfway through without meaning to, rather than loosing interest). But none of them struck me enough to persevere through the irritating format -- or, as I said, to shell out $40 for the paper version. A novel like this is not going to grab the reader by plot, obviously, so it needs to grab the reader in some other way: with fine prose, striking ideas, interesting juxtapositions on different pages, strong characters, startling brief vignettes on any given page -- something. And thus far the pages I read didn't grab me that way. I'd probably continue to explore it at least a little... except that the design of the app is irritating enough to dissuade me.

In short: total ebook fail.

If anyone from Visual Editions should happen on this review, my request would be to put out a new (free!) upgrade of the app. At least make the thing work the way a deck of cards would: with the reader able to go back and forth, lift their finger off the page, and not loose the order until the decision to reshuffle is made. I don't know the first thing about iPad programming, but I can't imagine it'd be that hard to do. So please, make this odd, experimental book at least as usable and reader-friendly as its author did -- and as you made the print version.

For anyone else: if the idea of the book intrigues you enough to want to read it, I advise you to shell out $40 for the paper version, or go to one of the libraries that lets you read their copy under armed guard and do that. Using the iPad version, even as a test to see if you like it enough to go to the trouble and expense of getting a paper one, just isn't worth it.

I will admit, though, that this whole experience has made me rather curious about B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. Fortunately, however, it's not available in ebook format, so there's no temptation there. If I want to read it, I've got to shell out for a dead tree copy.*****

* Other examples. Well, there's Raymond Quneau's famous work Cent mille milliards de poèmes [A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems], published in 1961, the year before Saporta's novel (and thus, presumably, not an influence on it, since the latter was almost certainly already been well under way). (Quneau's poem is translated in its entirety in the Oulipo Compendium, and is also available in various online formats.) A later work, on which Saporta was an influence, was B. S. Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, which was published in 27 sections, with a first and last identified and the rest shuffleable into any order. Robert Coover's 2005 short story "Heart Suite" is in the same format. And beyond these, there is the world of hypertext with its vast and ill-defined boundaries.

** There were worse solutions. According to Johnathan Coe, "the British Library holds two copies [of the French edition]: both, I'm sorry to say, diligently bound by over-zealous librarians (though at least each copy has the pages bound in a different order)."

*** Which means -- yes, I clicked through to check -- that once you reach the very last page, you can pick your finger up and read it in an ordinary fashion, as there's nothing left to scroll: one page you get to read in an ordinary way.

**** In the iPad version, of course, lifting a finger starts the shuffle again, leaving the old page unrecoverable -- so that you can only stop on the end of a page. If you quit the app (or close the iPad) halfway through a page, then restarting it will return you instantly to the shuffle, not to the page you left.

***** The Unfortunates, unfortunately, seems to be as unavailable at libraries as Composition No. 1 is -- for, presumably, the same reasons.

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