Oulipo Compendium - Edited By Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie

Oulipo Compendium100A strange name for a strange and intriguing book.

Oulipo is a contraction of Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle, which roughly translates as ‘ workshop of potential literature’.

Oulipo is a group of French speaking mathematicians and writers who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. One of its founders, Raymond Queneau is the author of Exercises in Style.

The book is a compendium of different techniques and approaches which are described, often with illuminating examples.

Why should such a book be of interest to those involved in change?

Well the book forms a fascinating glimpse into a host of different ways of thinking and looking at the world. And of course one of the most fascinating consequences of constraints is that, far from reducing ideas and opportunities, the introduction of constraints serves as the stimulus to new ideas.

Just take a look at the spam arriving with your email to see the creative lengths that spammers will go to, to get past anti-spam software. Or the lengths that car owners in the UK will go to, to construct words from the very limited letters and digits allowed on a number plate

The book opens with Queneau’s ‘Hundred thousand million poems’ Ten pages each of 14 strips of text, that can be combined to create this number of different poems. From there onwards the book is a treasure trove of ideas to change the way you see.

My personal favourite is ‘The Skinhead Hamlet’ by Richard Curtis which uses the technique of substituting a vocabulary drawn from a radically different environment, in this case ‘skinheads’, and applying it to Shakespeare’s play. The language is inevitably strong, but it had me crying with laughter.

This is a book that will enliven parts of your brain that others simply cannot reach.

Steve Unwin
August 9 2007