Ergodic literature refers to texts that require a reader to make a different or greater than normal effort. This is usually because they are non-linear in some way, which theoreticians relate to the possibilities of hypertext. An ergodic text re-interprets the idea of 'plot', plays with layout or typography, requires the reader to find a 'key' to unlock the meanings of the text or introduces an unreliable narrator or digression. Examples in print include Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Julio Cortázar's Rayuela, or Hopscotch, and in electronic literature Michael Joyce's Afternoon: A Story. The term itself was coined in this specific sense in 1997 by Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Hypertext and meaning
Aarseth appropriated the word 'ergodic' from physics. It combines the Greek words 'ergon' and 'hodos', which mean 'work' and 'path' respectively, and Aarseth writes that, “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. This is why cybertext, or hypertext fiction, is seen as the epitome of ergodic literature. The reader's expectations are foiled, and there are many possibilities to branch out and explore different manifestations of form, plot, character, and movement. Each reading yields a different story, and the reader is 'productive', rather than passive. Ergodic literature thus challenges the very notion of authorship or authority, and is sometimes seen as liberating or empowering. Michael Joyce's Afternoon and Twelve Blue illustrate these principle through the use of hyperlinks and multiple possibilities, some hidden and radical, in plot and character.
The term was first coined by Norbert Weiner in his 1948, Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, and suggested by Vannevar Bush's office of the future with its hyperlinked microfiche. Ergodic literature, while often modernist has been described in postmodern studies, for example, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their writings about 'rhizomes', Jacques Derrida and his decentered text, and Roland Barthes's 'writerly text'. Sherry Turkle and Jean Baudrillard write about the simulation of 'reality', or realities.
It is generally agreed that some texts in the print medium not overtly or self-consciously inspired by hypertext are ergodic classics. These include:
- James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, where the stream of consciousness style requires a reader to follow the unpredictable, sometimes disjointed path of the mind of one or multiple characters.
- Irish writer Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, ostensibly 'about a bicycle', which twists ideas of life, death, and existence into a constantly shifting reality.
- The works of the mostly French Oulipo writers, who were writers and mathematicians and devised many 'locks', combinations and other tricks. Examples include: Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, which does potentially allow one hundred trillion poems to be read, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, generated by a 'story-making machine' and which conceals a key that pulls the text into a whole story, and works in Italian such as Cosmicomic and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which play with the flutters and gaps in what the eye sees.
- Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire where the unreliable narrator Charles Kinbote may or may not be king of Zembla, but readers will never know.
- Most of Jorge Luis Borges's fiction, where many alternate realities exist in the minds of the narrators.
- Works by Milorad Pavić, such as his three cross-referenced versions in Serbian of Dictionary of the Khazars and Landscape Painted With Tea, which is mixed the novel form and the crossword.
- The typographically 'locked' 1000 BCE Chinese text, the I Ching.