Gallery 1: History and Context

[Please note that this information is preserved exactly as presented on the walls of the gallery, so instructions on ‘How to read this text’ refer to the stations as they appeared during the exhibition.]

Gallery 1 traces the historical development of digital literature from the experimental print predecessors of the 1960s, through the pre-web text-based forms of the 1980s and 1990s, to current multimodal web- and App-based incarnations. While digital literature is facilitated by new media technologies, its heritage lies in print and those writers who were pushing the boundaries of what this medium could do.

Station 1: 1960s Proto-Hypertexts
Station 2: 1980s Interactive Fiction
Station 3: 1990s Storyspace Hypertext Fiction
Station 4: Contemporary App-Fiction
Station 5: Kinetic Literature


Station 1: 1960s Proto-Hypertexts

Some print works, retrospectively collected under the term ‘proto-hypertext’, are often seen as the literary precursors of digital fiction. As if anticipating the creation of digital hypertext in the 1980s in which fragments of digital texts are connected by hyperlinks, these experimental print texts are also presented as fragments which can be read in different orders. In all of these texts, the reader is allotted some responsibility for choosing which paths to take through them. The works in this section of the exhibition are print novels and poems published in the 1960s by eminent writers from the UK (B.S. Johnson), the United States (Vladimir Nabokov), France (Raymond Queneau and Marc Saporta), Argentina (Julio Cortázar), and Italy (Nanni Balestrini). They were part of a general postmodernist move towards deconstructing traditional literary forms and subverting common expectations of what a novel or poem should look like.

Furniture kindly supplied by: Door44 Ltd ( and Vintedge, 444 Abbeydale Rd, Sheffield, S7 1FR (

A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems 

Raymond Queneau (1961)

This book is a collection of individual lines from 10 sonnets, cut into card strips so that the reader can combine and re-combine them indefinitely to arrive at diverse readings. As indicated by the title of the work, there are, in theory, one hundred thousand billion (1014 or 100,000,000,000,000) different poems in this text. French writer Raymond Queneau co-founded a group of experimental poets called Oulipo, which is short for ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’, or ‘workshop of potential literature’. The group has been in existence since 1960.

How to read this text: Move individual poetry lines, or cards, forward and backward to form different versions of the ten sonnets.

Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Pale Fire is a poem of 999 lines, composed by a fictional writer named John Shade. The poem has been annotated profusely by another fictional character, the poet’s neighbour and fellow academic, Charles Kinbote. Unlike the comments in a standard edition, Kinbote’s notes become almost more important than the poem itself as they deal with matters far beyond academic concerns. In other words, the conventional hierarchy between text and annotation is turned upside down, giving rise to an intricate network of proto-hypertextual links and text nodes.

How to read this text: You can read this text either consecutively or by jumping between the poem and its comments.


Julio Cortázar (1963)

Originally published in Spanish under the title Rayuela, this postmodern novel tells the story of Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian intellectual, and his trials and tribulations in Paris and Argentina. Readers are told right at the beginning that it can be read in two ways: in a linear fashion (from chapter 1 to 56) or much like a hopscotch game, jumping through the book in a criss-crossing manner. They are also given a chapter map as navigation aid, which begins with chapter 73 and continues in a seemingly random fashion.

How to read this text: You can decide whether to move from chapter to chapter in a consecutive way or by following the sequence suggested in the front matter.

Composition No. 1 

Marc Saporta (1963)

The copy of Composition No. 1 in the exhibition is a contemporary re-imagining of a book originally published in 1963 by French writer Marc Saporta. Published as the first ever ‘book in a box’, the narrative is set in Paris during the German occupation in World War II and documents the life of an unnamed and unlikable protagonist and his destructive, deceitful and violent relationships with women. This book has also been turned into an iPad App-fiction, which you can read at Station 4.

How to read this text: The book exists as a collection of 150 loose pages inside a box, leaving it to the reader to decide the order in which you read the book.


Nanni Balestrini (1966)

The copy of Tristano in this exhibition is a contemporary incarnation of the original Italian text published in 1966. The novel comprises ten chapters, but the fifteen pairs of paragraphs in each chapter are shuffled differently for each published copy. This means that no two versions of the text are the same, and there are 109,027,350,432,000 different possible variations. Each copy is numbered individually on the cover page; we have number 12484. The narrative is based on the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde which has inspired many poems, novels, operas, songs, and films. It is a tragic tale of two lovers – Tristan and Isolde – who, after taking a love potion, are destined to a forbidden, adulterous but everlasting love.

How to read this text: As a bound text, you are meant to read front to back, with no choice. This edition also contains a foreword by Umberto Eco.

The Unfortunates

B.S. Johnson (1969)

The Unfortunates is a book in a box written by British author B. S. Johnson. The narrative follows a sports journalist who, on an assignment to Nottingham, is preoccupied by memories of his old friend, lost to cancer. This work is not just experimental in terms of form (pamphlets in a box) and structure (27 sections, 25 to be read in any order) but also in terms of its content: is this a memoir or a novel? Where does the boundary between those two genres lie?

How to read this text: The first and the last chapters are indicated as such, but each of the other chapters can be read in any order the reader chooses. This 1999 edition also includes a helpful Introduction by contemporary novelist Jonathan Coe. Also note the quotes from Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne that appear on the inside of the box.


Station 2: 1980s Interactive Fiction

Interactive fictions, also called text adventures, were a highly popular type of interactive reading game in the 1970s and 1980s – in print and on early PCs. To read them, players have to enter text commands like ‘go north’ or ‘open door’ in response to narrative sequences simulating an interactive, exploratory storyworld. In other words, individual reading paths depend on the reader’s choices and interactive creativity (in the sense of ‘what might I be able to do with this pram other than push or pull it?’). Today there is still a very active interactive fiction writing and reading scene, but compared to commercial videogaming, it has become a niche phenomenon.

ZorkZorkInfocom (1980)

Infocom’s Zork trilogy is perhaps the best known, and also one of the first, interactive fictions. Set in ‘the ruins of an ancient empire lying far underground’, the text takes the reader (an ‘adventurer’) on a journey through forests, mysterious buildings, cellars and dungeons, and the goal is to obtain treasures in defiance of attacking trolls, grues and other dangerous creatures.

How to read this text: Enter commands such as ‘take lamp’, ‘look under the rug’ and ‘go south’ to prompt new text and advance in the gameworld. The parser (underlying software) understands a range of common verbs such as ‘take’, ‘attack’, ‘drop’, ‘examine’, ‘open’, ‘close’, and ‘climb’. Enter ‘save’ to save your position in the game, or ‘quit’ to drop out.

Computer on loan from The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge.


Edward Packard (1984)

Supercomputer is an example of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel from the Bantam Books series (1979-1998). These books are, like Interactive Fictions such as Zork, written in the second-person (i.e. from the perspective of ‘you’) so that the reader assumes the role of the protagonist. The reader is asked to make choices throughout the text which affect the narrative outcome.  In this particular text, ‘you’ win a supercomputer in a programming competition. Depending on the choices you make, the computer leads you to fame, fortune or ruin.

How to read this text: Begin at Chapter 1 and follow the instructions at the bottom of the page. Overall instructions are also given at the beginning in the ‘Warning!!’ page.


Station 3: 1990s Storyspace Hypertext Fiction

In the late 1980s, J. David Bolter and Michael Joyce created the Storyspace software programme to facilitate the writing and reading of hypertext fiction. This pre-Web technology was developed to allow authors to connect fragments of text, known as ‘lexias’, via hyperlinks and thus experiment with literary structure and form.

During reading, each lexia is displayed individually. Rather than the numeric sequencing that is associated with most print novels, lexias have titles. The reader can access the next default lexia in a near-linear fashion by clicking the ‘Enter’ key on their keyboard, or they can click on hyperlinks that provide access to other lexias within the text. Hypertext authors were experimenting with new forms of textuality, attempting to produce fragmented, multilinear, three-dimensional shaped texts which they perceived as more faithfully replicating the way the human mind works than traditional linear narratives. The reading experience is therefore, as in the proto-hypertexts from the 1960s also included in the exhibition, disjointed and often non-linear.

Approximately thirty Storyspace hypertext fiction works have been published to date. Eastgate Systems Inc. is the sole producer, publisher, and distributor of Storyspace hypertext fiction worldwide.

Computer on loan from The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge.

AfternoonCover2afternoon, a storyMichael Joyce (1990)

Set in modern-day America, the narrative revolves around four central characters whose lives are, like the structure of the text, intertwined. The text pivots around a number of key incidents of which the most influential is a car accident in which Lisa, Peter’s ex-wife, and Andrew, his son, may have been involved. The text houses many unresolved mysteries and the story of afternoon is often unclear.

How to read this text: You can navigate the text by using ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ buttons displayed at the bottom of the text window or via hyperlinks. The links in afternoon are, however, hidden from the user interface so that you must locate them by clicking experimentally within the text, seeking to find words that will provide access to others. Restricting your capacity for exploration, the reading paths in afternoon are limited by ‘guard fields’ which prevent you from accessing specific lexias until you have visited others. You can go back a lexia by pressing the ‘backspace’ button on the keyboard or return to the cover page at any point by pressing the ‘home’ key on the keyboard.

PatchworkPatchwork Girl; Or, a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley, & herself

Shelley Jackson (1995)

As the title indicates, Patchwork Girl is rooted in an allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and can be read as a feminist response to Shelley’s 1818 gothic masterpiece. The protagonist, the patchwork girl of the title, is a supernatural being composed of a collection of human body parts, and the narrative documents her adventures in nineteenth-century England and modern-day urban America as she transforms from a solitary figure to a confident and independent member of contemporary society. Contrasting with the antagonistic relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation in Shelley’s text, the patchwork girl and her female creator (Mary Shelley) enjoy a harmonious and loving bond.

Patchwork Girl comprises five sections: ‘a graveyard’ offers details of the donors of the patchwork girl’s body parts; ‘a journal’ is narrated by the patchwork girl’s creator; ‘a quilt’ is also narrated from the creator’s perspective but also contains extracts from other relevant fictional works; ‘a story’ is narrated by the patchwork girl and offers her own perspective on her life; and ‘broken accents’ is a quasi-fictional reflection on the process of hypertext fiction writing by the author of the text, Shelley Jackson.

How to read this text: Once you have chosen which of the five sections to explore, either click the ‘Enter’ key on the keyboard to follow the default path or else expose hyperlinks by holding down the ‘Ctrl’ key on your keyboard.  You can go back by clicking the ‘Back’ button on the top left of the screen or return to the cover page at any point by pressing the ‘Home’ button on the keyboard.


Station 4: Contemporary App-Fiction.

As technology advances, so too does creative experimentation. The App-fictions in this section of the exhibition are accessed on tablets and/or smartphones and require readers to engage with the texts via the touchscreen. While these texts have all been published in the last four years, we can trace within them the structural and formal experiments that began with the proto-hypertexts of the 1960s and have continued through to the kinetic, digital forms of the present.

Comp No 1 thumbnailComposition No. 1, Marc Saporta, Universal Everything, Visual Editions (2011)

The Composition No. 1 iPad app digitally animates the non-linear reading experience of the original print novel (also shown in this gallery, at Station 1). In the printed text, the reader shuffles (or throws into the air) individual pieces of paper. In this digital incarnation, the text scrolls so fast that the reader cannot predict where the narrative will start and stop. In both versions, therefore, the reader must leave the narrative order to chance.

How to read this text: The pages scroll very quickly across the screen and won’t stop unless you place and hold your finger down on the screen. Once you release your finger, the scrolling begins again and you must stop the text on another page.

futurevoicesFuture Voicesinkle studios (2012)

The Future Voices competition invited writers to create interactive stories using inklewriter, a free web-based tool that allows anyone to create and share interactive stories. The best eleven stories, produced by writers of all ages and from all around the world, were collected together into the Future Voices anthology. The stories include a range of different genres from comedy to ghost stories to science fiction. Some have more limited interactivity, while others comprise puzzles or small adventure games.

How to read this text: Open up the ‘Contents’ page and choose a short story. You can navigate back at any point using the arrow in the top left of the screen.

frankenstein-iconDavid Morris’s Frankensteininkle studios (2012)

Dave Morris’s Frankenstein is an interactive novel that places the reader right inside the story, acting as Frankenstein’s confidant, guide and conscience. Throughout the narrative readers are given choices reflecting how they would like Frankenstein to proceed, and they are allowed to explore the dark, mysterious world in which the original story is set. Following and adapting Mary Shelley’s original text, Frankenstein is a new reading experience designed from the ground up for mobile devices and written using inkle’s inklewriter platform for creating branching stories.

How to read this text: Open the virtual book cover and tap on ‘Read’ to begin reading the story. You can navigate back at any point using the arrow button in the top right of the screen or via left-swipe.

sorcery_iconSorcery!Steve Jackson (2013)

Sorcery! is an interactive adventure in a world of monsters, traps, and magic in which every step of the adventure is yours to decide. In this text, there is an emphasis on gameplay (e.g. combat skills) rather than literary interpretation as the reader navigates their chosen avatar through the storyworld.

How to read this text: Respond to cues in the text and explore. The text contains over four thousand choices, with every one remembered and used to branch, alter, and even rewrite the story in real-time.

icon 18 cadence18 CadenceAaron A. Reed (2013)

18 Cadence is an iPad storymaking platform that lets participants explore and compile the history of a fictional house from 1900 to the year 2000, dragging and combining fragments of story text to create their own narrative out of the raw material of a century of living. Like magnetic fridge poetry for narrative, fingers push around sentences and shape individual events into meaningful sequences. 18 Cadence invites readers to play with the atoms of a story, and consider the malleability of a history.

How to read this text: Choose whether to begin at the beginning or at the end; then, tap on the screen and drag text fragments into the centre of the interface to build your own version of the story.


Station 5: Kinetic Literature

Almost all of the texts in this exhibition require that the reader interact with the work in a physical way either by shuffling pages, choosing links, typing text, or moving through it like a game world. Kinetic literature moves on its own. The autonomy of the work means that experiencing kinetic literature is much like watching a film or an animation. However, this dynamic, textual work is meant to be read rather than watched. The longer we experience the work, the more the boundary between those two processes moves.

waber-strings-72rgb-150xStringsDan Waber (1999)

Strings is a mesmerising, hypnotic, and playful collection of short Flash pieces in which digital text moves and morphs seemingly without interference or stimulus from external sources. The handwritten style of the typeface coupled with the human characteristics that the dynamism suggests (e.g. arguing, laughing, embracing) allows this digital, inanimate, but ultimately endearing object to take on a life of its own.


After you’ve looked through our online exhibition, please take a few moments to fill out our feedback form or leave a comment below. Thanks, and we look forward to hearing from you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s