Has anyone heard of ‘ergodic literature’? Because until today I had read a couple books in this unique little category without realising it had an actual name. And since words are so powerful, this single word has opened up a whole world of reading that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. So if you like strange, outside-of-the-box storytelling — read on!
What is Ergodic Literature?
Most English language books are read from front to back and left to right. Ergodic literature, from what I understand, tells this basic rule of reading to piss off. Ergodic literature wants you to forget traditional written storytelling and take control of your own journey through the book. Want to read a book where you can start in the middle? Read upside down? Follow along with bizarre footnotes? These books are crazy and interactive and want to make you, the reader, a part of the story. It involves a level of interaction that traditional books simply do not require, whether that’s holding a book up to a mirror to read a passage or pulling a letter out of an envelope. It’s immersion and agency without a digital screen and a way of storytelling that someone is either going to love or absolutely hate.
It seems complicated to fit all ‘ergodic’ books into a neat little box. From what I’ve read, what some consider to be ergodic literature, others consider being a plain old book. When I first read through the Wikipedia article on the subject I instantly thought of the Give Yourself Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine that I was obsessed with in the 90s (‘Reader beware… You choose the scare!’). These were, of course, the Goosebumps version of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 80s. Give Yourself Goosebumps seem to be ‘lite’ examples of ergodic literature, but as far as I can tell they fit into the loosely defined criteria well enough. Like other examples of ergodic literature that I will get to shortly, the Give Yourself Goosebumps books require more work and input from you outside of passive reading. For instance, the beginning of my favourite book in the series, Escape from the Carnival of Horrors, has the reader decide what area of the carnival they want to explore: the rides, the midway or the freak show before spiralling into dozens of other choices that the reader gets to make on their adventure.
An example of ergodic literature that pops up on a few lists (and that I absolutely ADORE) is Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. In Griffin & Sabine, a book of correspondence between a man in London who designs postcards and a woman on an island who designs postage stamps, the story is told through both postcards and eventually letters. While Griffin & Sabine has a quirky appeal, what makes it fall into the category of ‘ergodic literature’ is that the letters have been folded up and placed inside envelopes on the pages. So there’s that extra bit of physical connection between the reader and the narrative. I’ll write a proper review of this book soon as it’s stunning and I really want to ramble on about it.
And of course, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a bit of a poster child for ergodic literature. Fans of horror and experimental literature have likely heard of this book even if they haven’t tried to tackle reading it yet (it’s not only very thick but very heavy). House of Leaves is a story within a story filled with footnotes and photographs all surrounding a documentary about a house that may or may not have ever existed. The book can be read a number of ways and never forces the reader to read in a linear fashion, but instead removes all sense of traditional rules and kind of lets you do your own thing. House of Leaves was definitely the first time I experienced spinning a book in circles in order to read all of the text on a page. It’s bizarre, subverts traditional print storytelling, and is a bit of an obsession for some readers who analyse each page over and over again to find out what any of it actually means. I spent some time talking about this unique and beastly book in my review (the second half of which contains spoilers, just fyi!).
Other examples of ergodic literature that I have yet to read (but hope to soon) are S. by J. J. Abrams, Composition #1 by Marc Saporta, and One Rainy Day in May (Familiar #1) by Mark Z. Danielewski. There are quite a few of these books and a useful list can be found on Goodreads for those who are interested.
So basically, I’m now obsessed. I’ve been thinking about ergodic literature constantly since I first read about it. This is basically a really long post explaining that I’ve now added a new category under the ‘Book Review’ tab on my navigation bar for these types of experimental books. You’ll notice that my review for House of Leaves has now been put into this category and to be honest, all this talk of ergodic literature makes me want to read it again.
What do you Think?
Have you read any books that can be considered ‘ergodic literature’? Is this a type of storytelling that interests you or repulses you? Any recommendations of ergodic books for me to devour? Let me know in the comments!