The writers who revel in losing the plot

Reading a book in a random order may seem strange, says Jonathan Gibbs, but it's a curiously enlightening experience
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The Independent Culture

Remember the heady days of the early 2000s, when the iPod was the epitome of cool, effortlessly fusing fashion and cultural consumption? It wasn't just the retro-futuristic design that made it the must-have gadget of its time, though. Back in 2001, before we got used to buying music digitally, the iPod's USP was the shuffle function, that played you your songs in a (supposedly) random order, shining a light on the gems in the dusty corners of your record collection.

With the book world lagging behind music by a decade or so, when it comes to technology at any rate, it's no surprise to see the shuffle function beginning to make the leap from playlist to virtual book shelf. What rot, you might say – who wants to read Anna Karenina in the wrong order? Well, nobody, but that doesn't mean randomisation doesn't have its place in literature.

Earlier this year we had Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. In print, this was a novel made up of linked short stories, its 13 chapters skipping elegantly around in time, and from character to character. Digitally, though, the publishers took the book's non-linear impulse further, with an App that allowed you to shuffle the chapters at the touch of a button.

Now we have Composition No. 1, the third publication from the innovative Visual Editions, whose collaboration with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes, took ideas of sampling to drastic extremes by cutting holes in the text of Bruno Schulz's classic The Street of Crocodiles to leave a new story scattered in its remnants.

Their new edition of Composition No. 1, by the barely-known French writer Marc Saporta, is a book in a box, similar to B S Johnson's experimental novel The Unfortunates. Published in 1969, it came as 27 boxed pamphlets, two of them marked out as the beginning and ending, the others to be read in a random order. Saporta's book, originally published seven years earlier, makes Johnson's conceit look positively lily-livered. Its box contains 150 sheets, loose and un-numbered. Throw those up in the air and the number of possible permutations is... well, I don't want to think about it.

The fractured reading process that results is as frustrating as it is illuminating. Twenty minutes spent with the almost invisible narrator, in Nazi-occupied Paris, and with Marianne and Dagmar, his wife and lover, and you get a sense of their characters, the first glimmerings of a few important scenes, and little more than that. The illumination comes in realising how spoon-fed we are as readers, how much we rely on the author to hold our hand through their precious book.

It certainly helps that Composition No. 1 is beautifully produced. Each page has, on its flip side, a different digital artwork by design studio Universal Everything that minimises and merges the text of the book, making of it a swathe of TV static, or drifting sand.

This abstract artwork turns up, too, on the iPad App of the book, where it is made deliciously tactile, letting the reader dabble in the word-soup, stirring its letters any which way. The App's reading interface is another unexpected take on the iPod's shuffling process. Here, the pages flash up on the screen at lightning speed, only stopping when you touch the screen. Lift your finger and your page is gone, lost in the whirl of unread words.

Or you could turn to another dead author, Roberto Bolaño, for a new-old twist on the shuffle function in literature. His latest work to appear in English, Antwerp, is a novel of 56 short numbered chapters that he describes as "just loose pages that I re-read and maybe tinkered with, convinced I had no time." It's another book that you want to be able to randomise. Yet the irony remains that if we were given it all nicely mixed up, death-of-the-author-style, we'd only want to know what the "proper" order was.

'Composition No 1' by Marc Saporta, Visual Editions, £25, iPad App £4.99. 'Antwerp' by Roberto Bolaño, Picador, £12

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