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An OuLiPo Book

Since we're on the topic of books, let's move from the publishing specifications to the actual content. Wouldn't it be great if every book were written like Exercices de style by Raymond Queneau? In short, highly similar, quickly read chapters.

Queneau was one of the founders of the French literary movement called OuLiPo. "Movement" is not the best word; "group" could work for want of anything better. The group, which still exists today, made its name from an acronym of the French phrase Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, normally translated as "workshop in potential literature," though I prefer "experiment in potential literature." It is an experiment in creating artificial literary constraints in the belief that doing so is the only way to liberate artistic impulses.

Queneau's Exercices could be considered a founding work of OuLiPo, and the constraint it presents, conveniently named exercice de style, is quite easily imitated. He writes a very short, one-page account of an unimportant incident. Then he rewrites the story in 98 different ways, some if which include telling it from the perspectives of different characters involved, putting it in the form of a drama, writing it with anglicisms, writing it as a formal letter, etc.

The implications for meaning are fascinating, because different perspectives give the reader completely different things to think about and even on occasion new information, but the essential elements of the core story do not change. So the book is not at all boring, but just in case you think it does, let me mention that it also has a surprise ending. Plus, it's fast and easy to read because each most of the "chapters" are less than a page.


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