Wednesday, March 12, 2003

This is an especially fun correspondence, taken from the archives of Whale Cloth Press, concerning its recent publication of Robert Grenier’s Sentences and the topics of identity, difference, democracy & JavaScript. Thanks to Jessica Lowenthal & Michael Waltuch for permission to reprint it here.



To Whom It May Concern:


I am a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, researching the long poem in cyberspace. I'm fascinated by Grenier's Sentences – I've seen the original and I'd be curious to hear whether or not you think this new publication is the "same" as the original. I sense that there's something to the handling of the cards that's important to the boxed version, but there's something more democratic in the online version that brings the new accessibility of the piece more in line with the reading experience. I'd appreciate any information you have about the journey of Sentences from box to screen and I'd also love to hear about how you randomize the cards.




Jessica Lowenthal


University of Pennsylvania  


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Michael Waltuch replied:


Jessica Lowenthal:


Thanks for your interest in Sentences. I'm Michael Waltuch. I was the "publisher", if you will, of the "original" Sentences in 1978 and most recently made the work available on the Whale Cloth Press web site. Some of the history (more or less accurate) of the publication of the original work as well as others of Grenier's can be found at Stanford University's "Robert Grenier Papers", a finding guide to which is at Under the section called Collection Contents, you'll find mention therein of some of the production process of Sentences in Series IX. Histories of Making/Production of RG Works 1971 - 1997.


I'll try my best to answer your questions, but please note that while I was responsible for certain (very differing) aspects of production for both the original and the current versions, any opinions, intent, etc. are my own and don't necessarily reflect Grenier's.


The original and the "new publication" are, of course, as you indicate, quite different in the sensory aspect of handling the cards. This is the case for most every "book" or artifact that makes its way from the 3D world to non-3D representation on the web. Another aspect of the web version that differs from the original is the containment of the cards in a box. There is no box, so to speak, on the web, unless you consider the browser window or web site a container. It's interesting to note though that this aspect of the work had its own evolution. Grenier created the work on 500 Oxford 5"x8" index cards that he bought from a stationery store. These cards came in a cardboard container that was in two pieces, a "top", slightly larger in size than the "bottom". One slid the top off vertically, holding two sides; then one could take out the individual cards either one at a time or get them all out by turning the box over and then lifting the bottom off. The photos on the Whale Cloth web site show the box I designed; it was based on ones I'd see in the stacks at Widener Library at Harvard University where I was working at the time. It was cloth-covered for durability and all one piece, making handling the work a lot easier, as you could get at the cards more easily, without having to tip them out.


When you say, "I sense that there's something to the handling of the cards that's important to the boxed version, but there's something more democratic in the online version that brings the new accessibility of the piece more in line with the reading experience," I'm not sure how to respond because I'm not clear on what you mean. There's no prescribed way to read the "boxed version". I do remember observing that most people were careful in their handling of the cards, although this surprised me. One can read the cards one at a time, stacking them back up on top of each other on a new stack, one can lay them out in groups of one's own arrangement, one can shuffle them, one can pin them to a wall, etc. And so, in some way, one could say the "boxed version" allows for a "freer" mode of interacting with the work than the online version. Is the original then, in fact, "more democratic" than the online version or is it just better suited to an individual reader's preferences? Is this what you're getting at when you align "accessibility" and "democracy" (it can be read by more people because it's on the web) with the "reading experience"?


In any case, similarities exist between the two versions in that they both present(ed) design/production challenges. Containment, sequence/randomness, consistency, materials are all issues that present(ed) themselves in both instances.


As for how I randomize the cards... In JavaScript I wrote the following code which ensures that the array a() contains all the numbers from 0 to 499 in random order without any duplicates. This happens every time you navigate to the work. The value at each array index is used in turn as a lookup index to another array (not shown) that contains the text of the individual cards. The work is different when seen in Internet Explorer 5.5+ browsers than with any others since I use an Internet Explorer-only Transition effect to animate the cards changing. Other browsers don't support that animation effect.


var a = new Array();

function CreateArrayWithRandom(){

    var m,n,i,j;

    i = 0;

    j = 0;

    while (i <= 499)


       m = (500 * Math.random()) + 1;

       n = Math.floor(m);


       for (j=0;j<=499;j++)


         if (a[j] == (n-1))


           j = -1;




       if (j != -1)


         a[i] = (n-1);










I hope this has been of some help.


Michael Waltuch


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Jessica Lowenthal in turn responded:



Dear Michael,


Thanks for all the information; very helpful stuff – and very kind of you to respond so quickly and thoroughly.


By "more democratic" and "in line with the reading experience" of the original, I meant (as you guessed despite my cryptic prose) that although the web version eliminates the reader's ability to manipulate the cards (to stack 'em, sort 'em, shuffle 'em, or pin 'em), more people can read the text now that it's online. It's one kind of freedom for another: the "freer mode" (as you say) of the boxed version is replaced by "free access" to the website. I was trying to suggest that the new freedom of access somehow matched the collaboratory impulse of the original.


As to your surprise about how carefully readers manipulated the cards: I suspect that now the cards are handled with more care than ever before. I was afraid to touch the version I saw! I watched as the owner of the box flipped randomly among the cards, producing a reading experience sort of like the online version (without the script), in that I read a set of cards randomized by an external hand.


Anyway, thanks again for your help.




Jessica Lowenthal