It’s the 60th anniversary of one of my favorite books.

Or non-books, as the case may be.

In 1961, Raymond Queneau published the largest volume of poetry in world history, consisting of 100,000,000,000,000 sonnets. In a single stroke, he surpassed the combined sonnet output of all other humans in history. Reading his book at a rate of one poem per minute would consume nearly 200 million years. You’d be the last human left (and certainly the last poetry reader).

This magnum opus, I should mention, is ten pages long.

How did Queneau do it? Simple: he composed ten sonnets, each fourteen lines long, and each with the same rhyming sounds. Then, he printed each page of the book as fourteen separate strips. Thus, you can flip your way to any combination of lines.

With ten choices for the first line, ten more for the second, and so on, you wind up with 10^{14} possibilities.

I don’t really consider A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems a work of poetry. Rather, Queneau created a space of combinations, and furnished rules for navigating that space. It’s a work of combinatorics, that just so happens to produce poems as a byproduct.

Shannon estimated the entropy of the English language to be approximately one bit per character (‘Prediction and Entropy of Printed English’). So choosing one poem out of 10^14 of them is like writing 14log(10)/log(2) = 37.4 of the characters yourself. I sampled a random poem from the website you linked, and it had 477 characters. I imagine that the other sonnets will be similarly long. So if you pick a poem from the book we can say that Queneau wrote 92.2% of it and you wrote the other 7.8%.

Thanks, Ben Orlin, for this post. Interested readers can learn more about Queneau and OULIPO in my blog, “Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics” at https://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com. A new reader may wish to browse — or to use the SEARCH feature.

I’ve owned this book (in hardcover form) since my childhood (I’m from French-speaking Switzerland). What a great surprise to see it featured here!

Ah, fun! Did you play with it as a kid? I’ve only come across it in mathy Oulipo circles!

Yes I did! My parents gave me the book, even though I was more into math than literature; they thought I’d like the combinatorics aspect.

I read about this book when I was chasing topics related to the Library of Babel. q.v.: http://libraryofbabel.info/

Shannon estimated the entropy of the English language to be approximately one bit per character (‘Prediction and Entropy of Printed English’). So choosing one poem out of 10^14 of them is like writing 14log(10)/log(2) = 37.4 of the characters yourself. I sampled a random poem from the website you linked, and it had 477 characters. I imagine that the other sonnets will be similarly long. So if you pick a poem from the book we can say that Queneau wrote 92.2% of it and you wrote the other 7.8%.

I’d love to be able to interact with this – it sounds really cool! – but the link above doesn’t seem to lead where it should. Any advice?

Click the link, then click the menu icon in the upper left of the page; on the menu, click “The poem.”

The equivalent in the board game world, 504 (9*8*7) games in one box: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/175878/504

Thanks, Ben Orlin, for this post. Interested readers can learn more about Queneau and OULIPO in my blog, “Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics” at https://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com. A new reader may wish to browse — or to use the SEARCH feature.