House of Leaves is single handedly the most memorable book I have ever read. Period. It was recommended to me back in 2004. I read it then, and still think about it often. Anytime I’m asked to suggest a book to a reader, the first title out of my mouth is House of Leaves. It was written by Mark Z. Danielewski and is my favorite book of all time.
Ok, ok, I’ll stop gushing now and explain just why I love this book so much.
House of Leaves, visually, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Each storyline has its own distinctive font. When the perspective switches, so does the font. There are also bibliographical annotations through the story. Some of the references are real while others are not. It almost makes the whole story seem factual, even though we, as the readers, know it is not.
But that is just the beginning. As the stories progress, the layout and format of the text becomes irregular. Sometimes there is only a word on a page. Some pages have no words at all. Some pages have words at an angle, forcing the reader to physically turn the book in order to read the text. Other pages still have words in the form of shapes - circles and squares mostly.
Having a hard time visualizing that? No problem. Here’s an example:
House of Leaves is a perfect example of ergodic literature (or as Danielewski calls it, signiconic literature). Espen J. Aarseth first used the term in his book, Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. On page one of the book, you will find his definition of the term:
"In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages."
Ok, so what does that mean??
Ergodic literature is a type of book that has text that is more difficult to read because of its placement on the page. If it’s hard to follow the text without significant effort, it’s ergodic. BUT, in order to effectively use ergodic literature as a concept, the work must also have text that is easy to read.
Such is the case with House of Leaves. The most dramatic layouts, ones that required 360 degree turns of the book in order to read, are only found in The Navidson Record, one of several narrative perspectives in the book. As the main characters in that storyline travel deeper and deeper into the unknown depths of the house, the layout of the text gets more and more bizarre. On the other hand, excerpts from the mind of Johnny Truant, another storyline in the book, are completely normal and very easy to read. Danielewski uses dramatic layouts in The Navidson Record to accentuate the mysteries of the house thus creating ergodic literature.
Now, I would be lying if I said that the ONLY reason I like House of Leaves is because it’s visually stunning. I ALSO love the book because of the story. It’s tantalizing.
Johnny Truant is looking for a new apartment. His friend, Lude, tells him that an old blind man in his building, simply known as Zampanò, has died and his apartment will soon be available. Johnny goes to scope out the place and inside he finds a manuscript written by Zampanò. It’s an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Johnny takes the manuscript and reads it. The more he reads it, the more Johnny suffers from paranoia, hallucinations, and overall strange behavior. It could be the drugs, or it could be the manuscript. It is unclear.
Zampanò’s manuscript is commentary on The Navidson Record and makes up the main bulk of the story. The Navidson Record is a documentary created by Will Navidson, a photojournalist, about his new home in Virginia. When Navidson and his family return from a trip to Seattle, there’s something different about their house. A closet has suddenly appeared. There is now a door leading to the closet, in place of a blank wall, and another door exiting to the children’s room. What’s even more puzzling is the fact that the interior dimensions of the house are bigger than the exterior of the house. At first the difference is minor, only an inch or so, but as time passes, the differential becomes greater.
Another change happens that drives the rest of the story, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I want everyone to read this work of art! Like I said earlier, I read the book over a decade ago and it’s still my favorite. Not only is it fascinating to read visually, but the story is also intriguing and well worth the time and effort. I promise.
Mark Z. Danielewski was born in NYC to actress Priscilla Decatur Machold and Polish avant-garde film director, Tad Danielewski. Creativity certainly runs thick in his family – Mark’s younger sister is Annie Decatur Danierlewski, a.k.a Poe. Due to Tad’s profession, the family moved around quite a bit, residing in Switzerland, Spain, England, Africa, and various locations in the US. He graduated with an English Lit degree from Yale . He studied Latin at UC Berkeley and then received his MFA from USC’s School of Cinema-Television. House of Leaves was Mark’s debut novel in 2000. Since then, he has published six additional novels.