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Literature and Algorithms: The Gaming Possibilities of Books

In today’s digital world, there are many cool and interesting ways to read and interpret literature. Gone are the days when the only way that a person spent time with literature was by turning the pages of a book, because now the world is full of eBooks, audio books, and computer generated literature. However, it is rare to think about the possibilities of assessing literature through a game. The activity in question is the long played game of chess. With the use of an interesting algorithm, there is now a way for you to play your favorite books or text against each other in heated chess matches. Dr. Graham Burnett, a Professor at Princeton, and W.J. Walter, a programmer, worked together to created an algorithm which gives the reader the chance to pit novels against each other in a game called Novel Chess[1]. In the initial presentation of the game, the French novel Colomba goes head to head with the English Wizard of Oz, the outcome of which was 0-1, with a win for the book about the wonderful, wonderful wizard. What is even more interesting about the game is that any outside texts that are chosen can be used to play it. Ever wonder whether the Twilight series or Harry Potter would win in a chess match? Well, Novel Chess can set that exact match up in real time. Another facet to the game is that it challenges the typical reading of all of these novels. Not only is it possible to understand the symbolic significance of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, it can also be determined if Hawthorne’s novel has the textual fortitude to beat out Huckleberry Finn.

Another aspect of using algorithms to search for patterns of text in books is thinking about the way that a text is read. In a way, a computer performing the process of text mining, or a chess player strategizing while playing a match, is very similar to a person doing a close reading of a text. Each is looking for certain patterns and clues that are occurring within their text to grasp a larger interpretation of the text as a whole. However, for many people, the hidden patterns of books tend to go undiscovered or are not looked for at all. Therefore, it would be a change in the right direction if we took a page out of the book of our digital and gaming invested friends and made reading into a similar game in our heads. Instead of just reading a novel for the overall story, think about what the underlying patterns are in the text. Sometimes authors write codes and patterns into their works to be deciphered by the reader. Therefore, we can see that literature cannot only be used in games, but the process of reading literature can be a fun game within itself. 

After writing this article I have come up with what I consider to be a very interesting research topic for my yearly scholarly pursuits. The program Novel Chess has started me on the path of drawing parallels between the archetype of the chess player, in literature and pop culture, and the reader. For many of us, the way that we are taught to read literature is by using the New Critical method of close reading, which in my opinion promotes a kind of paranoid reading of texts, which is especially prevalent in 19th and 20th century literature. Reading for meaning that might not be there corresponds in many ways to the ideal of the paranoid chess player, exemplified by accounts of Bobby Fisher and Luzhin in Nabakov's "The Defense". If anyone has any thoughts on the intersection of chess, literature, and paranoia, your comments will be welcome.


[1] Shahade. Jennifer. “Great Gatsby Plays to Mate.” The United States Chess Federation. UCSF, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. < http://main.uschess.org/content/view/10705/601>

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