Ergodic Literature

I completed this article based on a final project for a graduate class I took this semester entitled "The History of the Book: 1450 to the Present".  Puzzle books and books with lots and lots of ephemera have fascinated me since I was young, when I received a "Fairyopolis" book containing pop-ups, fold-out letters, and more.  Like many others, my interest piqued again when I saw Sarah Scannell's TikTok video on Cain's Jawbone.  I just knew I had to get myself a copy to mark up and pore over.  When this project was assigned this fall, requiring research on an element or type of book not previously discussed in class, choosing ergodic literature was a no-brainer!



What is Ergodic Literature?

The term "ergodic" comes from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work", and hodos, meaning "path".  Ergodic literature was first proposed by Espen J. Aarseth, a professor at the IT University of Copenhagen.  Aarseth defines ergodic literature as literature where a "...nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text."

If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.

—Espen J. Aarseth, in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature

In other words, ergodic literature makes you do more work than just reading text on a page.  It usually involves added ephemera, puzzles, or jumping from random page to random page in order to fully read the text.  Ergodic literature can also involve a plethora of footnotes, marginalia, or, as writer Melissa Baron said in an article, "sometimes just a few scattered words tossed across the page like confetti."



Ergodic literature has been around since antiquity.  One of the earliest examples is the I Ching, a Chinese oracular text that dates from around 1122-770 BC and was written by several different authors.  In his groundbreaking 1997 book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Norwegian academic Espen J. Aarseth describes the I Ching as a combination of "sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ('changing') lines. ...By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts."

However, ergodic literature is not limited to the past.  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a prime (and popular)  example of contemporary ergodic literature.  Explore more ergodic literature from the 20th and 21st centuries below.


Get the bookCain's Jawbone

by Edward Powys Mathers

Published in 1934, this book consists of 100 pages detailing the stories of six different murders.  It is the job of the reader to cut or tear out all 100 pages and put them back in the correct order and solve each of the murders.  "The number of possible combinations of pages is a figure that is 158 numbers long," says Andrew Anthony of The Guardian.  "The prose is an enigmatic combination of literary allusions, word plays, spoonerisms, and buried clues.  It’s a little as if Agatha Christie had been rewritten by T. S. Eliot and then all the pages thrown off a tower block and randomly collected below."

Currently, there are only four people in the world who have solved the mystery of Cain's Jawbone.  The book essentially fell off of the world's radar until a TikTok creator named Sarah Scannell began posting short videos of her journey unraveling Cain's Jawbone.  Her videos, which have been viewed more than four million times, have caused the book to fly off the shelves.  In late 2021, it was completely sold out in stores and online.

Readers' notes:  Readers of Cain's Jawbone have stated that solving it would be next to impossible without the help of Google or other search engines, due to the plethora of literary references from 1930's England.   Currently, the publisher Unbound is running a contest that ends on December 31st, 2022.  Whoever solves Cain's Jawbone before that date will receive a prize of $300. 



Get the bookS., or Ship of Theseus

by J. J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

This collaborative work consists of a textbook, Ship of Theseus, written by the fictional author V. M. Straka, and marginalia written back and forth between two college students, Jen and Eric, as they work together to solve the mystery of who Straka really is and read the book together.  Ephemera such as newspaper and postcards is also included within the book's pages, culminating in a very tangled web that the reader must work through to fully grasp Jen and Eric's story. 

Readers' notes:  Many readers of S. suggest reading Straka's Ship of Theseus first, then going back and reading Jen and Eric's notes along with it.  Others say tackling the whole beast at once, slowly, will do the job just the same.  Either way, S. is quite the puzzle for readers to comb through.



Get the bookIlluminae

by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Published in 2015, Illuminae is the first book in Young Adult trilogy The Illuminae Files.  When main character Kady’s planet gets invaded, she teams up with her ex-boyfriend Ezra to escape, amid threats of war and plague.  The novel consists of interviews, military files, and other documents to show what Kady and Ezra's life is like on the escape craft as they navigate the plague and try to figure out if the ship's AI is actually on their side or not.

Readers' notes:  The Illuminae Files is a YA trilogy, and Illuminae has garnered a 4.25-star rating on Goodreads.  Readers enjoyed the plot twists, epistolary format, and felt that it was a fairly easy read for a book of its style, but some felt that the pacing was slow and it took a while to feel invested in the story.



Get the bookHopscotch

by Julio Cortázar

Hopscotch was published in 1963 and is the account of the life of Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian man living in Paris in the 1950s.  This novel is split into three groups of chapters.  Chapters 1-36 are titled "From the Other Side", chapters 37-56 are called "From this Side", and the last 99 of the total 155 chapters are called the "Expendable chapters".  The author includes a "Table of Instructions", but there are multiple possible endings, depending on the reader's decisions.

Readers' notes:  The "Expendable chapters" are considered useful riddles and puzzles to help the reader figure out more details and clues about chapters 1-56.





This article was adapted from Carissa's web project.  See her website for the full project and a list of references.