When viewed at a glance or from a bookshelf, Anne Carson’s Nox (pictured above) appears to be a codex like any other. However, when you get close enough to open the book ― or a better term would be box ― its unique structure is immediately apparent. Nox consists of one long, accordion-folded page inside a box, seemingly testing the limits of what we know a normal book, or codex, to be. It is concurrently a reproduction of a notebook and a book of poetry about the death of Carson’s brother, viewed through the lens of the Roman “Poem 101” by Catallus, and includes handwritten letters, old family photos, collages, and sketches from Carson’s life.
I first learned about this book last spring semester during my ENG 345 class, Creating Book Culture, with Dr. Ford, and it made such an impact on me that it was one of the first things to come to mind when we had class in the Rare Book Room and talked about the affordances of books. I would argue that Nox is an “extreme” book, not only due to its unique physical structure, but also because it is an example of all five affordances of the codex.
It is simultaneously sequential and random access; like most normal books, it can be read front-to-back, but since it is a book of poetry, the reader can flip to any page and still understand the content, and this experience is only heightened with the use of images Carson places throughout. It is a volumetric object, made very apparent since the entire book rests inside a box. It is a finite object, since it has a beginning and ending and a certain amount of pages (but no page numbers). It offers a comparative visual space in two different ways: more than one page can be viewed at one time (or even all pages, if completely unfolded), and its text and its images coexist on opposite pages, or even sometimes the same page. Finally, it is writeable as well as readable; its pages offer a large amount of blank space, and the scans of handwritten notes that are scattered throughout serve as a constant reminder that books can be written in.
As Matthew Kirschenbaum wrote in his “Bookscapes” article, “Books on the screen are not books, they are models of books.” Despite the fact that it is a print book, Nox is still more of a model of a book than what we think of as a book. Nox is an “extreme” book in the sense that it serves as an example of all five affordances of the codex and has its own unique physical structure.
The same way the book and its affordances revolutionized the way people create and read both fiction and non-fiction, the digital world and cyberspace has vastly expanded on these literary concepts. As Janet H. Murray describes in her article Hamlet on the Holodeck, there are four essential properties of digital environments, “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.” (Murray, Janet. “Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.” Choice Reviews Online, vol. 35, no. 03, Jan. 1997) What makes this new era of digital literature so interesting is that we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to new ways of immersing the reader. Concepts like simulation were quite limited prior to the digital age but now programs like ELIZA and virtual reality have the user immersed to the point where it is very similar to having a real experience. Similarly, games like Ice-Bound, which I still cannot fully comprehend, really demonstrate how much the player can be given the reigns to not only follow a path but create the path itself.
What made the game so interesting was that it gave so many different paths and outcomes so that the player had the optionality and could, based on their opinion, create the ideal end of story or chapter for the characters. Additionally, while utilizing the Ice-Bound book seemed very cool in theory, in practice it seemed glitchy and never really worked. Playing the game was not exactly a walk in the park but I think it really shows the great potential of where video games could go in the future.
This book’s concept of going through with many options would have thrilled me as a kid, especially if it was a favorite, that I would reread over and over again because then there would always be variations and it would never get old like most favorites inevitably do. How many different stories can you create from one book? What is the probability that someone from the class read the same story as you?
Something that would have enticed me as a kid reading with this style of electronic literature, was at the very beginning, where there was a warning against reading the story because it was forbidden. Not only was there a warning, but it seemed real since after finishing reading it there was a glitch and the words in the warning were being erased and changed. It’s human nature for people to want to do things that they are told not to do so it is a good strategy. Because this is very interactive, though it was more enticing because it actually felt like you were not supposed to since the warning started to glitch. An example of these glitches can be viewed below; they’re unique because they were a continuous feature of the online game as seen here. This is definitely a notable, unique affordance of this form of electronic literature and something that a regular paperback novel could never do. This takes the definition of active reader literally. You are actively are scrolling through the options with the little white bubble. The endless options and active reading are two things that distinguish this book from paperback novels.
Being in the rare book room for the first time was an incredible experience. The spread of books laid out for us were unlike anything I had seen before. Before the rare book room, I had a tough time wrapping my head around the meaning of affordances. However, after fully immersing myself into the content and focusing on each affordance individually, I was finally able to grasp the concept of affordances.
This opportunity allowed me to look at books in a new light, and to discover the meaning of each affordance. The stations around the room were divided to represent the affordances of books being accesible both sequentially and randomly, volumetric objects, finite, having a comparative visual space, and as being both readable and writeable. The station representing the affordance of books being volumetric was especially intriguing to me, as I was then able to see books in different compositions, as opposed to the traditional front to back cover form. There were books compiled as letters in packages as well as one written on one continuous page that folded into a neat little box. In addition to different formats, I observed that artists had also taken advantage of the physical form of a book as they painted scenic settings on the pages of books, only to be revealed when fanning them.
Overall, this venture helped me see a book as more than just a bound object filled with pages. I now see them as a tool through which people can materialize their creativity in a variety of ways by utilizing the affordances of books to their full capacities. The affordances give authors the freedom to express their ideas in many ways, whether that be in a small font with intricate illustration, or in the case of the book pictured above, in a massive and cumbersome fashion.
The experience of starting the Ice-Bound Concordance ended up being very insightful as I was introduced to an electronic piece of literature that offered a variety of paths to choose from as my group navigated through the first chapter with the AI inside of the application. This idea of independent choice is not as new to the world of literature as we’ve seen with Make Your Own Adventure books and even Mad libs to a certain extent. However, independent choice on an interactive electronic piece of literature is a lot more stimulating.
The electronic affordances of the Ice-Bound Concordance are different than a physical book to say the least. One of the main electronic affordances-which was also mentioned in the reading for Monday-was the idea of interactivity. This, being one of the more modern pieces of electronic literature, shows us a more enhanced version of this affordance than those described in Hamlet on the Holodeck, which included programs like Eliza and Zork. In addition to the interactivity, specifically with the Ice-Bound Concordance, the choices that we made in order to progress through the chapter made it seem fun.
When I was thinking about the Ice-Bound Concordance, my mind went to one of my favorite shows on TV: Rick and Morty. For those of you who don’t know, a brief synopsis of the show is that Rick is a mad-scientist who takes his grandson Morty with him on cool adventures throughout the Universe. Anyway, I was thinking about this one particular segment of the show in which Rick and Morty go to this arcade/bar in order to pass sometime (more like Rick leads the way). They play this futuristic virtual-reality game called “Roy”, in which everybody starts out as the same little boy (Roy) awaking from a dream-which is actually the reality of each player’s life. Anyway, everybody who plays the game “Roy” chooses their own path for Roy’s life, which is what each person in the Ice-Bound Concordance does too, which is making choices the ends up being from other people’s path . In Rick and Morty, it’s interesting to see how Morty’s Roy ends up living, and then how somebody’s testimonial of Rick’s Roy is totally different.
According to Ethan Hein, in his blog post, “Affordances and Constraints,” “User experience design is easy in situations where there’s only one thing that the user can possibly do. But as the possibilities multiply, so do the challenges.” I found this sentiment particularly true in relation to my experience with Ice Bound. While a highly sophisticated method of interactive storytelling, I encountered some technical difficulties with the app that ultimately rendered it un-playable.
Ice Bound reminded me of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a child, and comparing the two made me consider the differences between the print and digital narrative. First, a quick gloss of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, for anyone who may be unfamiliar with them. These books are not read front to back. Rather, demonstrating the affordance of books to be accessed both sequentially and randomly (Kirschenbaum, 2008), you’d begin reading the first chapter, but upon reaching the end, you would be presented with a choice, such as “If you choose to follow the white rabbit, turn to page 34. If you choose to investigate the tea party, turn to page 126.” You’d then make your choice, turn to the page, read that chapter, and, upon reaching the end, make yet another choice. You would keep reading like this until you reached one of the story’s multiple endings. I really enjoyed the ability to be an active agent in the narrative. They were a lot of fun!
I’m sure the similarities to Ice Bound are apparent. The game is also an interactive narrative, allowing you to make choices and reach various endings. However, Ice Bound also makes use of Murray’s essential properties of digital environments. The participatory nature of Ice Bound, while in some ways embodied in Choose Your Own Adventure books, is far more pronounced. You have much more agency in the game, with dialogue options and many more ways to shape the narrative. Ice Bound is also far more encyclopedic than a thin children’s novel. The options for symbols, events, and endings are more numerous than could realistically be contained in a book. The environment is also spatial, creating a more immersive, unsettling experience as you appear to descend downwards into the base. And obviously, the app is procedural, responding to inputs with outputs.
Ice Bound, therefore, has the potential for a far more complex, visually striking, interactive narrative than my old Goosebumps books. But, to return to Hein’s point, there are also many more ways for Ice Bound to go wrong.
Books, far more than iPads or computers, are uncomplicated and user-friendly. In trying to think of things that would render a book versus a computer unusable, I came up with a great deal more for computers. Books don’t overheat. They don’t get viruses. They don’t freeze. They don’t experience network connectivity problems.
While playing Ice Bound, my iPad, for an unknown reason, failed to provide the “Confirm” button necessary to progress through the game. While I was able to interact with the Compendium in some pretty incredible ways (an image in the Compendium played as a video when viewed through the app, which I thought was amazing!), I was unable to select any of the pages, and therefore had to stop playing after chapter 2. I spent a solid twenty minutes trying to get my iPad to confirm the pages, which proved fruitless and frustrating, and I eventually wasn’t able to progress any farther in the narrative.
While Ice Bound (or what little I saw of it), was an original, creative, and engaging narrative, my experience with it was far more negative than positive. Rather than finding enjoyment in the narrative itself, I instead became frustrated due to a minor glitch in the mechanics of the game. In the novels of my youth, you never had to worry about a malfunctioning “Confirm” button. As long as you had a light source, and your book didn’t become submerged in water, lose pages, get defaced, or catch fire, the technological aspect of a book was never a hindrance to experiencing the story.
This post is getting long, so I’ll conclude it briefly. My experience with Ice Bound suggested to me that the increased options for interactive, sophisticated storytelling in digital spaces is commensurate with the potential pitfalls. For me, issues with the form of Ice Bound far overshadowed my enjoyment of the content. The actual narrative was sacrificed for the sake of an interesting digital aspect. I’m interested to see if that becomes a theme in our study of electronic literature this semester and discuss how we preserve the narrative core of our stories with the increased challenges accorded to us by a digital form.
Welcome to the Fall 2017 version of DIG 220 (Electronic Literature) at Davidson College. Students will be posting material here soon. In the meantime, the course schedule and guidelines are available to all.