UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Disruptive Reading: Resistance to Digitalization in Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

Grant Glass

This research paper questions the impact of the digitalization of books on the printed word through a comparative study of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. The evolution of digital media has been quick and there has been little time to contemplate its implications. Within all the excitement of the digitalization of media, the ways in which reading would be impacted were glossed over. Digitalization greatly impacts how the reader interacts with books and how meaning is constructed. Specifically the question that needs to be asked is how does the digital screen impact the way we read? Digital books have significant implications on the ways in which we consume books and construct narrative. I will use the term book to describe these two texts when talking about both the visual and linguistic characteristics of these novels.

In the past decade (2002-2012), there has been little discussion about how the digital word impacts the way in which read, and how it influences our interpretation. Much discussion has been centered on whether or not this change from physical books to digital books should be embraced or resisted. However, even long before the discussion there have been novels that have long exploited the physicality of books. This paper will use The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Tree of Codes to articulate the types of books that resist digitalization. This paper will discuss how these books function and what ways these particular texts resist digitalization. Current academic discussion on both books will provide a backdrop to the discussion on how both books exploit their physical nature to resist digitalization. Implications on this type of resistance articulate a need for the physical in an ever-evolving digital world.

Part One: The Digital Book

They way in which we have consumed media has changed greatly since the digital age. Many of our first experience with digital goods were the MP3, which changed our ability to easily consume music. The move from analog to digital was not to be ignored, but a theoretical framework needed to be developed to approach this emerging media. In reaction to this, scholars in the field of media studies including Jonathan Sterne looked at MP3s and decided that there would need to be a new approach to this consumable media, a new theory. Sterne developed a new theory in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, a theory that would address the nature of the format. His belief was that the form in which the media is produced must be considered. The MP3 allowed music to be consumed and carried easily, which had implication beyond the music itself. Sterne argues that the implication of looking at the change in format for a given media signify changes in culture in which the format adapts to the culture’s need.

In the early 2000s, the need for consumable music simultaneously drove digital music demand up, while driving society’s dependence on physical CDs down. The music industry adopted, many record stores started to carry special vinyl editions of albums and more music became digitized. Music itself didn’t change, but the way in which it was consumed did. Old formats like vinyl became new again and the digital age dominated the landscape. The culture changed both with the change in format, but also in opposition to the change in format.

Format theory can also provide insight into the motivations behind the digitalization of the printed; books became digitized to meet the needs of an immediate consumer culture. The immediacy of our culture drove the demand for digital books, books that can be downloaded from anywhere using mobile devices and computers. In a culture that wants information now, where hyper-reading of twitter feeds and status updates dominates the textual landscape, how can the printed books survive? The answer is similar to how vinyl records became popular again; there is a counter culture of publishing printed books that embrace the physicality of books. Books that have di-cut pages (Tree of Codes) and books that use typeface and layout to tell a story (Self’s version of Tristram Shandy) have emerged to conserve the printed word.

The printed word has a longer history than recorded music has, and therefore its culture to preserve its traditional form will be stronger. The resistance to digitalization will be greater and farther-reaching. Looking into the history of the printed word, scholars like Warren Chappell have looked into the ways in which books have been mass published and consumed. In reaction to the immediate demand of books, publication became more automated and more analogous. Chappell argued because books looked the same in their raw form (without the outer jacket), the visual aspects of the books were the only elements that made them unique to the eye. Dust Jackets and cover art was needed to sell books, because our culture moved too fast to sit and read each book to decide which one to buy. Chappell concluded that publishers have overemphasized the visual aspects, oversaturating the market with interesting cover art and design, which has led to a stagnant printed book market. While Chappell’s argument is relevant to the market as a whole, it does not implicate different versions of the same book. How could a compelling cover design be more desirable than a digital free version of the same book? Chappell would implicate that the digital version would be more desirable, but how do we explain the survival and even thriving designer cover versions of the same novel?

Physical features of the book can be exploited to drive a greater demand for physical books. In Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1894, Alessandro Ludovico argued that new premium editions of books with unique cover art, new editing, and higher quality paper drove the desirability of the physical book. Ludovico also concludes that our desire of physical objects drives some consumers to desire the physical copy of a novel. Complicating this desire of physically owning the book is the desire of immediately owning that book. The tension between wanting it now, and wanting something unique is best expressed in the book. This is why the digital book and the digital bookstore evolved simultaneously, to meet the need for immediate consumption.

The digital bookstore still has cover art to make that book unique, but more importantly this store fits the need for a more immediate format of the book. The bookstore is a place to sit and read many different books; the digital store provides free previews of books, to be read at the consumer’s convenience. The bookstore is still essential, by providing a space to read and congregate to socially interact with novels. More implicitly, it is meeting the needs of the niche that yearns to be free from the distractions of the immediate culture. In Robert Darton’s book, The History of Books and the Digital Future, Darton argues that the site of where books are consumed plays an integral role in the reader. The way the reader will consume the book is dictated by how the reader purchased the book. A digital book will be accessed on digital devices, consumed on devices that are inorganic, compared with books produced on paper, an organic compound. Darton’s argument implicates that if books are consumed solely on digital formats, their ability to connect with the reader is diminished. There is a need for the physical book, because there will be always a need to connect to what is natural. At the end of his book, Darton concludes that digital and physical books will co-exist through exploiting their difference. Looking at the differences in how the two formats function will provide justifications for their co-existence.

The digital format of the novel can have implications for the written word far beyond just a consumable difference between formats. In Book was there: Reading in Electronic Time, Andrew Piper argues that reading in other digital mediums such as Twitter and Facebook places the digital word in a hyper mode. Reading no longer is a slow, contemplative, process, but now digital reading becomes essential for information. This implicates that books are consumed quicker, which drives the need for easily consumable books up. However, the connection to that work deepens with time spent with it, so when that time is lessened its far-reaching impact also diminishes.

The tension between information and contemplation becomes more apparent in the digital book, where the digital book format meets the digital word format. In If Bach had Owned a Computer: Technology and Teaching the Novel, Jay Boyer cites that removing the flipping the pages removes from what we know of the immediate experience of reading. Removing immediate experience will drive reading for information further away from reading with contemplation. Digital books have adapted to this by providing animations of flipping pages when the reader decides to go to the next page. But what is lost is the physical process of flipping the page, feeling it glide between your fingers, feeling the roughness of the page. Our eyes see the page turning, but our hands do not feel the page turning.

The way our mind reacts to reading is also affected by the format of the book we are reading. In What is the Matter? Or, what Literary Theory neither Hears nor Sees, Laura Mandell argued words in the digital format are not inscribed but stored. This implication goes both to the page, but also the mind. Since the words are not a permanent fixture to the page in a digital book, our mind essentially does not give as much weight to those words. Storing information speaks to a disconnection of the act of reading from the act of feeling what one reads. However, another scholar, Jean-Paul Allouche argues that it is only the scholar that looks at the digital book differently; the reader looks at both formats the same. There can be arguments on both sides for the implications of the digital book, that its format can have no effect or adverse effects to reading. However, Sterne’s format theory would suggest that both reader and academic look at the digital book different. But what these scholars have not considered is what if the format of the physical book itself resisted digitalization. Instead of arguing for the implications of the digital word, why not look at how the physical book can read implicitly different from the digital version? Katherine Hayes has studied books that embrace physically and have labeled these books as embracing “the aesthetic of bookishness”. She argues that this trend has been around since 2000, but this aesthetic has existed in novels before digital formats were even available. It is this embracement of bookishness that places Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes closer to reality, further away from digital mediation.

Part Two: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

On of the great examples of exploiting methods in printing was Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The novel was published in 1759, at a time where mass printing was starting to flourish. Sterne felt strongly that “writing needed to be printed”(Tadie 170). For Sterne, the act of writing and printing had to be intentional, had to add to the experience of reading. Sterne crafted a novel that did something that had never been done before, embraced the book as a physical object. Sterne utilized not only his words, but also the type and the space of the page to write. The newfound technological advances in printing press allowed Sterne to produce the book exactly as he wanted it, every page laid out exactly to his specifications. In a book that exploited printed publishing, its resistance to digitalization should also be considered. The aspects of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman embrace its physicality, and make it difficult, even impossible to digitize.

The first aspect that makes it difficult to translate into the digital is the typography. The typography is always in flux, always changing throughout the novel. The fourth volume of the text begins with the Slawkenbergius’s Tale, which fluctuates between Latin and English in different fonts is lost in the digital version. The digital version of the same portion of the novel contains only the English version and fluctuates between bold and light text, not different typesets. In order to fit on many different digital devices, the publisher of the digital copy is unable to create the same visual impact as the physical book. In this aspect of typeset, Peter de Voogd argues, “only the original text will do”(Voogd 117). Without those elements of the Latin and the fonts, certain words are no longer stressed. The reader does not pause on “H O B B Y- H O R S E” on page 317 in the digital version; the reader only sees “Hobby-horse” on location 6064. The word “hobby-horse” is given emphasis, becomes funny in the original typeset, but when it becomes just apart of the surrounding text, it becomes normal, just a compound word. According to Peter De Voogd, Sterne was involved in the practical design of his books, including layout, typeface, and format. These were intentional decisions that played into the narrative, and affected the way in which the book was read. So when we read “H O B B Y- H O R S E”, we are made aware this is a book, that there were decisions about its typeset. The typeset plays on the physicality or “bookiness” of the novel. Essentially, by removing this kind of playfulness, there is a feature of reflexiveness that is lost.

This typology of the book is not only compromised within the digital version, but the digital version disrupts the reflexivity of the text. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman creates a story by including the reader within the text. This reflexivity was argued by Alexis Tadie by observing that “At times, the individual reader may be asked to identify with her or his image in the text”(Tadie 173). The elements like the intentional blank page following Volume six are lost in the digital version; it jumps to the next sentence. The reader does not pause on this page and think about the process of what brought the words to the page. Voogd argued that in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the reader experiences the act of “writing in a time in a book in space” (Voogd 118). The space that is created by the blank page is lost in the digital version, there is not even blank space to think about how the book was made digital. Reading the physical book allows the reader to think about how time and space play a role in narrative, since chapter six speeds forward in time.

The spatial aspects of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy extend beyond just missing pages, but to the narrative itself. Within the printed version, there is double spacing surrounding the paragraphs before and after “The company smiled.”(Sterne 121). In the digital version, the spaces exist on two different pages, so the effect is essentially eliminated. Even academic arguments are lost with the digitalization. The digital reader would not understand Rodger Moss argument that Sterne’s use of this type of spacing disrupts the conventions of narrative space. However, because of the spacing of the digital book is different from the original, this causes new spaces to be made, new readings to be had. But these are in opposition to the original construction of the book.

Ignoring the original aspects of the novel drastically changes its meaning. Sterne carefully constructed the typography of the novel to reflect the writing, much like a poet looks at rhythm, Sterne looked both at the way the text was read and seen simultaneously. [1]  When the novel reaches the seventh volume, and the reader comes to chapter thirteen, other languages seem to move in and out of the text, the novel becomes more and more transparent. The reader becomes aware of the book as it exist in front of them, rather than imagining some far off distant place. It brings the reader into the immediacy of the present, even though the narrative refers to the past. This aspect distances the reader from the text itself. Scholar Madeleine Descargues-Grant observed that as the book progresses, its language becomes harder to understand. The implications of this confusion are that the reader is distanced from the text at a level of language. The effect is not as strong when looking at only the visual or language aspect of the novel, so both the visual and language components must be considered equally.

There is a tension not only between the visual and the language components of the novel, but the printed and imagined words as well. The imagined word is one that the reader is meant to imprint on the page, in the blank spaces that the text provides. The surrounding text grounds the reader in reality, as Maria Laudando Manipulating argued that the tools of language within The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy create concrete objects. With this in mind, the absence of the blank pages and the text itself ground the reader in the reality of the novel. The reader of the digital version of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy would lose the reflexive aspects of the novel, would gloss over the imagined words. However, depending on what device one is reading the digital version with, one can see one’s reflection in every page that is read. In one aspect, the digital version has the potential to interject the reader into the text more. But, since the reader becomes a common background to the novel, the reader would simply gloss this aspect over. The occasional blank space allows the reader to pause and to think about why that space was placed there, rather than just glossing it over. The language also plays a key role in bringing the reader into the text.

The language itself is ever changing within the novel, and is spaced accordingly to acknowledge these changes in language. Sterne used many outside sources within The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, but does not faithfully acknowledge when he is using these sources. The spaces used throughout the text indicate these instances of outside sources are essentially eliminated in the digital book. One such example is the use of “Tulia” in volume one, which refers back to Cicero’s daughter. This serves to confuse the reader further since the reader is already reading within the source when they realize it is a different author. Many of the instances are obviously borrowed from famous works and would be easily identifiable. Scholar Fritz Gysin thought that Sterne creates “substitutes” of reality that frustrate the reader by providing additional meanings on already established motifs. In a sense, Sterne is reframing these famous works with his own words and confusing the original meaning of those works. If the space between the framing device and the famous work is eliminated, then the reader does not see the substitute of reality. Either the reader of the digital book thinks the original work is inserted directly into the text or that it just becomes another confusing reference. The reader of the physical book is frustrated by the substitute of reality, but sees the play on the traditional motifs. The substitutive quality of reality plays a deeper role in way the physical The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is read.

The composition of the book is a mosaic of visual, auditory, and linguistic tropes. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy focuses on the physical aspects itself, and places the reader in a position to recognize its existence. The text operates at so many different levels that it led some scholars like Ross King to interpret the structure of the novel to be a textual compensation for the body. A body that does not die, that continues to live long after its author dies. It is this aspect that places the novel closest to a digital medium, the digital self that is permanent online. When one puts down the novel, a sense of loss occurs, like somehow a piece of you were lost in the page.

Sterne achieves a complete loss of mediation in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, that blank pages, works from the past, and typography itself invade the text. However, by looking beyond traditional narrative and book construction, Sterne has focused the reader on what is real, not what is imagined. In both content and form, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy achieves reality, and apposes anything that is imagined or intangible.

Part Three: Tree of Codes

Unlike Sterne’s novel, Foer’s Tree of Codes was produced in a digital age, but it shares many of the same features as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The best way to describe Foer’s book is through Michel Chaouli’s analysis of a webpage,  “ a hypertext is like a printed book that the author has attacked with a pair of scissors and cut into convenient verbal sizes.[2] It is this attacking of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles by Foer with a pair of scissors that produces Tree of Codes. However, any articulation falls short of actually looking at the book. When one opens this particular text, there is a sense of fragility felt through the now flimsy die cut pages. Not only does one see the physically removed text from each page, but also one also feels its absence. There are many ways of reading this text, looking at one page by turning it to the side to see the few words that remain on its page or keeping the page down and see the other pages invade this single page. One can see the outlines of incomplete words under the spaces in the current page; complete words fill in the empty spaces, somehow adding to the text on this single page. As one moves through the book, less and less other text invades the page, so it is easier to look at.

There is no introduction, no forward, and no manual that is included in this text. Much like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the reader is left to his or her own devices to interpret the text. There is only an afterword that describes the process of making this text. The process is taking Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and cutting it, wounding it, to create Tree of Codes. So one has to question how to look at this text, and what sort of significance this text has in the realms of word and image. Through both the fragile physical experience of looking at the book and experiencing its textual loss (the deletion of the text of The Street of Crocodiles), one comes to the conclusion that the book resists mediation (or rather digitalization) in an effort to revert to what is tangible, physical, and real.

The physical experience of the book can be seen as a fragile even grieving experience. Any description of the process that created Tree of Codes pales in comparison to opening up a page of the book. One review of the novel reveals this difficulty at looking at the book, “His latest project, Tree of Codes, may be divisive for a new reason: It’s physically hard to read.” Looking at a single page differs from the experience of looking at the page as it sits on top of the pages after it. Rather then traditionally unfolding the text as you proceed along its pages, the text rather unfolds as the pages underneath diminish, clearing the space of the book and its meaning. The page itself becomes an image, unfolding simultaneously over and over with each turn of the page. .”[3] In order to look at a single page, to mediate the text further, a blank page needs to be inserted into the text after the page, so that the other pages don’t interfere with a reading of a single page. Each page is collision between word and image. The publisher, Visual Editions describes the text as “The book is as much a sculptural object as it is a work of masterful storytelling: here is an “enormous last day of life” that looks like it feels.”[4][1] This text pushes our understanding of what texts are that it needs a new understanding of the limits of art and reading. Lessing would be so completely offended by this text, “Painting and poetry should be like two just and friendly neighbors, neither of who indeed is allowed to take unseemly liberties in the heart of the other’s domain.” So what can be the implications of this sharing within a single text?

Both the physical and textual aspects of the text create the loss of mediation and the resistance to the digital world. The artistic world of writing concerns itself in matter of syntax, metaphor, allusion, tropes, and language. The artistic world of art itself focuses on more visual, aesthetic elements. At the intersection of both of these seemingly parallel, yet opposed worlds, exists Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. On the one street in this intersection is essentially the English translation of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and on the other street, is Tree of Codes. The work of Foer’s is essentially this English translation of Schulz’s text (which Foer wrote the forward for) that has been methodically die cut to produce this new, seemingly wounded text. In an age of E-readers and Tablets, this work defies the ability to be digitized. In his article, “Reinventing The Book.” Boris Kachka talks about this implication in a digital world, “Today we are mostly touching screens: Foer has us touch paper again, as if we were discovering the medium anew.” There is no single way to read or rather look at this book. Some readers have found it helpful to put a blank page under each page, so that the rest of the book doesn’t unfold in one’s perception. However this is only a way in which the reader hopes to mediate this impossible book. The text itself attempts to navigate unfamiliar territory and in this attempt is able to situate itself between the old binaries of word and image, experience and a priori knowledge, time and space, symbolic and imaginary, semiotic and studium, father and mother, enslavement and liberation. In a time of possibilities, Tree of Codes navigates into the impossible, into the real.

The real is something indescribable, something impossible. Trying to give description to this impossibility has plagued philosophers, writers, and artists. What art form is greater, higher, more capable to reveal truth, reveal the real. The world we live in currently provides media that many of the philosophies of Kant, Lacan, Lessing, and Barthes could of never imagined. The reality and plan of existence of the word and the image has drastically changed in our technologically advanced world. The webpage, the E-reader, the tablet, and the Internet are all current collisions between word and image. As a society, we have just accepted these new and exciting technologies without examining how they affect our core being. All of these new technologies allow one to essentially live forever through their Facebook page or website. It is my belief that technology has transformed our ability to grieve, diminished our ability to cope with loss, because there is no absence in an age of Facebook. Tree of Codes brings the reader back to the site of loss, of absence in an attempt to save one’s ability to grieve. And through this experience, the reader is allowed to experience something that pales in comparison to what words or the image can describe, death.

To allow for this experience to be understood, we must first look past Tree of Codes and look to the book that it mourns for, The Street of Crocodiles and more importantly its author, Bruno Schulz. According to the foreword to The Street of Crocodiles, Foer claims that Schulz met his demise in November 1942 at the hands of Karl Gunther (a Gestapo officer) because he had a much-prized relationship with Felix Landau (another Gestapo officer). Landau recognized the many talents of Schulz and ordered him to paint murals on the walls of his child’s room. This brought Schulz many privileges, however when Landau killed a Jew that was favored by Gunther, Gunther returned the favor. This information in the forward of The Street of Crocodiles is exactly like the information given in the afterward of Tree of Codes, one cannot help but frame both texts with this information. Much like Schulz’s demise, the wounded text (Tree of Codes) is calculated, exact, no accident, all intention. So if this act of removal is calculated, how could it bring it closer to the impossible? Because the act itself is a searching, yearning by Foer to find Schulz. Foer admits in his afterword in Tree of Codes that Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles was his most favorite work, and he chose this specifically for this project. This favoritism mutates into a sort of obsession as Foer wrote this in the forward of The Street of Crocodiles,  “Why was Schulz in the street that afternoon, instead of working on the murals?” The questioning of intention surrounding the day of Schulz’s demise hints towards an obsession with his death, and rather an obsession with all that is now lost. This obsession is further articulated in the afterward of Tree of Codes:

Like the Wailing Wall, Schulz’s surviving work evokes all that was destroyed in the War: Schulz’s lost book, drawings and paintings; those that he would have made had he survived; the millions of other victims, and within them the infinite expressions of infinite thoughts and feelings taking infinite forms.

The wounded text draws attention to the absence of what was there, but also the absence of life. One cannot help but think of the absence of Shulz from both life and the text itself. There is also an allusion to the loss of Schulz directly is an allusion to all that was lost in the Holocaust. This allusion hints at an intention that is not only about Foer’s mourning for Schulz, but also a sort of mourning for millions of other lives. This text should be thought as more then just dealing with the loss of a single author or single text, but rather millions of authors and millions of texts.

With this framework now in place allows us to look at his text in a larger loss, one about absence of text, absence of word, absence of life. But also looking at how what is in the text also alludes to loss as well. In one of the few works based on Tree of Codes, Kiene Brillenburg noticed this same present absence in her article “Old and New Medialities in Foer’s Tree of Codes, “When we read Tree of Codes, our eyes skip these open spaces. They perform an act of overlooking, of forgetting, that Foer forces us to make with his obliterations. Yet, simultaneously, this is a skipping that takes time, the whites and holes halting our reading: we become aware of those blank spaces in-between the words — spaces once full and inhabited and now wrecked, as if constantly reminding us of an irreparable loss. What appeared to be an (physical) act of forgetting becomes a roundabout or peripheral mode of remembering” What Brillenburg forgets to tell us is that as you read Tree of Codes, you start to look for the next word and start to even forget these huge spaces on the page. There are blank pages spread throughout the novel to bring your focus back to this awareness of loss. However, through this dance one begins to question why they fast-forward through the spaces in the first place. It is because there is compulsion to try to not remember the loss. However, we are bombarded with images of loss even in the text itself, in the constant occurrence of the title in the text itself (92, 94,95,96,88), always somehow beckoning us back to the original Street of Crocodiles, which is the title and place in one of the short stories in the collection of Street of Crocodiles. The title Tree of Codes is produced by removing the “S” and “t” in Street and the “r”, “c”, “o” “i”, “l” in Codes. The new title is understandable, but the letters it leaves out do not and cannot form a coherent word. The “leftovers” or the words and sentences left out cannot form their own narrative; they are left in an impossible world, free from any mediation. Even though these words and images are unable to be understood, their absence draws us closer to them, to think about them even though they no longer exist on the page. The elements that are not contained within the text also point towards this loss.

Reading the “original” text (The Street of Crocodiles), there is a sort of denseness in the writing, filled with images and life. The syntax seems to go on and on, with time suspended in one single moment on one single image, much like a painting. One particular passage from the story “The Street of Crocodiles” articulates this perfectly:

 Hung on the wall, the map covered it almost entirely and opened a wide view on the valley of the River Tysmienica, which wound itself like a wavy ribbon of pale gold, on the maze of widely spreading ponds and marches, on the high ground rising toward the south, gently at first, then in ever tighter ranges, in a chessboard of rounded hills, smaller and paler as they receded toward the misty yellow fog of the horizon.(63)

In Tree of Codes this particular passage is completely omitted, no one word is salvaged, just a blank block cut out from the page. All of this denseness and life is gone replaced by space itself, or one or two words are allowed, or even a punctuation mark. It is easy to see that the new text lacks all this life and color with lines like “darkness in our city. black rivers overflowed and pressed forward an opera in an enormous black amphitheater.”(102-103). These images seem minimalist comparatively, both from the difference in syntax, the replacement of color with blackness, and images of nature to images of the urban. Once warm images have been replaced by cold, but not quite lifeless images. There is a tension between complete absence and a sort of present absence in the Tree of Codes image. The presence constructs itself through verbs like “overflowed”, which seem to beckon back the old overflowing images of The Street of Crocodiles. This juxtaposition of the differences between the texts and simultaneously showing its affinity towards the original text, Tree of Codes attempts to ride a line of paradox. The urban images in this passage continue throughout the text in juxtaposition to the more naturalistic images show in The Street of Crocodiles, it is this complete change in tone that points to the change in technology. The movement away from nature and towards one with mankind itself becomes the link between the E-reader generation’s loss of grief and the text itself.

This grief manifests itself in many allusions to the father, which seem to point to this presence in the text as well as something beyond the text. No allusion is more apparent then in one image towards the end of the narrative,“i could hear Father calling for help.”(105). The lowercase “i” juxtaposed to the capital “Father” creates a sense of submission, of the lesser “i” in the face of Father.  The Father is capitalized like giving a proper name to something ambiguous, like an online identity. Again there is allusion to the electronic age, but also to an absence. This structural element somehow works against the content of this passage, with the father calling out for help, wanting recognition.  Allusions to father invade the text, where the space between them has been removed. There is a present absence of this father throughout the text, “Father was then no more with us. I had a hidden resentment against mother for Father’s death.”(97). You will notice that Father is always capitalized, always beckoning it back to one single person, not a variety. As one reads “The Street of Crocodiles”, you can easily miss the element of the capitalization of Father and the lowercase mother, however the Tree of Codes draws attention toward this presence. There is absence of text, but this absence draws our attention towards the present capitol “Father”. It is in fact, very hard to see instances of  “Mother” in the text, (23, 44), where there is only two instances. The interesting case for both of these instances of mother is that the sentence they precede, fails to follow any kind of functional grammar “Full of vast faded mirrors, our apartment sank deeper owing to my mother, endlessly everywhere discarded. sometimes”(23) and “Mother could not finish her almost completed day. We”(44). In the instance on 23 and 44, the next sentence fails to have a capital word begin it, which brings us closer to the absence, trying to find where the actual subject or beginning has gone. This slows down our reading and draws the attention away from the actual text and more towards the absence of text. The appearance of mother seems to affect the very structure of the grammar, further leading the text away from mediation. The mother can be seen as a return to the maternal, to a return before the mirror stage where language has yet to be formed to control the world. The decrease in mediation surrounded by the mother leads one to this impossible but very real space that one longs for. Not only is mediation loss in grammar, but also there is a loss in the displacement of time itself.

There is a strange time dilatation in the beginning of Tree of Codes, which is simply a blank page with all of the shapes of text removed from it, leaving a fragile, skeleton of a page behind. The first page gives us a complete removal of text, which heightens our awareness of the removal and seemingly speeds up the time of the text. In comparing the beginning of The Street of Crocodiles, which locates the story in time by framing it in “August”(3) to the new complete removal of time as a frame alludes to this removal of mediation. The new text sheds itself of any time frame, but is not still, the blank page also speeds up time.  The reference of time that was removed has been replaced with a more active time, one that exists in reference to the book.  Removal of the first words of the story, “In July”(page3-Street of Crocodiles) and replacement of “The passerby”(page 8) seemingly replaces time with the subject, removing it from conventions of time and allowing the text to exist outside of time itself. A comparison of the last words in each text further drives the notion of time distortion. In Tree of Codes the last words are “through the rooms” compared to The Street of Crocodiles, “archives of the sky”. The difference seems to exist in the choice of verbs, with the original text containing a past tense and the new text containing a present tense verb. There is a sense of hope in the new ending, however it is grounded “rooms”, as compared with “sky”. No longer is the text ended somewhere above, but somewhere real, like the lost murals in the children’s room. The text evokes the loss of Schulz even in its last words.

There is a lack of mediation in Tree of Codes from the deletion of  “Street of Crocodiles” in both content and syntax. There are many points in the text where there are unclosed parenthesis (page 53), un-capitalized beginnings of sentences (page 8), a period followed by a comma (page 116). However, most of the text does follow grammar conventions, so there is a concurrent movement towards mediation and away from it as well. Other moments in the text can only been seen by looking into the text through multiple pages. On page 132, one sees two periods spatially on top of each other, but from two different points of time. These evoke a new visual meaning that moves away from any conventional syntactical meaning. This evokes the essence of Schulz work, which never lends itself to any conventional interpretation. The resistance to mediation, to interpretation is even present in the original work of The Street of Crocodiles as Rod Mengham observed, “Mere observation never reveals anything in Schulz’s stories, where the sub- stance of reality eludes every attempt to imprison it in the dead forms of everyday appearance.” There is an allusion to the still like of the visual arts, in the “dead forms”, however by reframing, re editing this text, Foer is able to bring these dead images to life. But at the same instance recognizing that they are not there, that the absence itself can create presence too. A presence you cannot digitize, only one you can experience.

If you look on Facebook, you will see a page for Bruno Schulz, however you will not see any “recent activity”. You will only see a Wikipedia reference to the life and times of Schulz and a picture of Schulz to look at. It makes you realize that you know nothing of what made Bruno Schulz who he is without your “friend activity”. This alludes to an even more disturbing fact in the digital age; we have lost the ability to truly know those around us. We use the Internet to give us information about those around us, we text rather then pick up the phone, there is a disconnect with those around us, a detachment. Tree of Codes is a necessary work in our digital age, to make us realize all that has been removed from our own lives.

Where does this leave us? The lack of mediation, the overwhelming sense of loss in the text, its resistance to be digitized, what significance can be gained from this experience? Foer’s own perspective on this book was, “I think there’s going to be something that happens now, where books move in two directions, one toward digitized formats and one toward remembering what’s nice about the physicality of them.” But this text goes beyond this, to an area of loss in a somewhat eternal digital world. Nothing is ever lost in a new digital world, it is backed up, and it is placed in an area outside of nature outside of destruction. There are memorials over the Internet, pictures memorialized on websites, in digital photos, writings/letters saved on a computer. No one has ever looked back on the significance of digitizing everything on its effects of loss. This book, this experience finally gives us a complete look at loss. The physical loss of the words cut out from every page, the fragility of the paper without its words, the loss of the luscious language of Schulz, the lack of grammar, the lack of subject; all of these create the sense of loss. The story of Tree of Codes might be about loss, but it is the structure of the book, all its elements that bring one to the feeling of loss. The feelings that are provided are much like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the sense of loss of oneself within the book. They are confusing and hard to understand feelings, but they are real feelings and could not have been produced with a digital version.

Part Four: Conclusions

While operating on different levels, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes embrace their bookishness and provide the reader with an experience they would not have with the digital version. While the reader is presented a much more fruitful journey in the physical version of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the reader is brought on a completely new type of journey in Tree of Codes. The experience takes into account not only how the reader interprets the words on the page, but also how the book itself performs on the reader.

Traditional reader-response theories do not take the embodied reader into account, and understanding the ways in which these texts operate on the reader requires new perspectives. Taking into account the format in which the books are presented is one way this paper suggests at looking at these types of books. By looking at what differentiates the experience of reading in these two books will guide our understanding of how physical books are still essential to the study of books. However, our understanding of contemporary writing practices must fuel our analysis of books. We cannot simply search for key words and phrases for our textual evidence, we must slow down and feel the cuts in the page and contemplate a blank space. It is books like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes that will allow us to understand the influence of our twitter and Facebook culture on our ability to read.

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[1] Michael Berg discusses Sterne’s early letters about how he constructed the Tristram Shandy in his work, Pictures of Pronunciation: Typographical Travels through Tristram Shandy and Jacques Le Fataliste”

[2] Taken from Katherine Hayles’  How we Think : Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Page 204