For the entirety of this semester, I have been trying to read one book (an ambitious goal for an English undergrad, I know). The book sits on my desk with a bookmark a laughable third of the way through. While I’ve finished more books this semester than I ever have, I can’t get through this one. The wrinkles around the crushed base of its spine look like a furrowed brow.
The book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I honestly can’t really offer a good summary (the Wikipedia page makes a good effort: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Leaves), but the bare bones of the story involve a mysterious death, Russian-nesting-doll-like layers of stories and their narrators, a lost documentary about a hallway, and a house that defies the laws of physics.
It belongs to a class of books termed “ergodic literature”. This format requires extra work on the part of the reader. You have to search through the piece to read it properly, perhaps skipping forward or backward, or turning the book around to see the words. In House of Leaves, this ergodic element comes in the form of misplaced text and footnotes. So many footnotes. Sideways footnotes, hidden footnotes, footnotes in different languages. Footnotes with their own footnotes, footnotes left by different narrators. Footnotes that spiral outwards from the center of the page, footnotes that are poems and pictures, footnotes that cite books that don’t exist.
That is what’s amazing about this book: it can’t be reduced. It is dependent on the format that it takes. The experience of reading it is so integral to what the book actually is that you can’t separate the two. It defies Cliffs Notes and eBook format. In an age that prizes convenience and digital, there is something so fascinating about forcibly returning to the analog. It feels like a new genre, yet it takes an almost old-fashioned approach.
I’m wading through the book at a snail’s pace. The plot and the format require it. It’s confusing and challenging and convoluted, but incredibly immersive. It makes me think about the physicality of reading. Searching through the footnotes makes me feel like part of the story. I am confused along with the characters. I explore the mystery with them. When they do research in the story, I do research, too. The confusing layers of narrators couple with this ergodic effect to blur the lines between the reader and the story to create something that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Reading in small chunks is new for me. I’m a self-professed speed reader. I can honestly say that I have never been so defeated by a book. But I really, really have enjoyed it. While reading slowly originated in my frustration, it has morphed into a kind of purposeful rationing. I like this story and I don’t want it to be over. I’m saving it, savoring it.
Reading in a new way and challenging myself has made me fall more in love with books all over again. A lot of times, I think we tend to limit ourselves when it comes to literature. We say “I like this kind of book” or “I read in this way” and then self-confirm by seeking out only what we know. But the experience of reading outside of your comfort zone is too good to pass up.
So if you feel stuck in a rut with your reading or writing, try something different! Try a new format. Read a different genre, or read in a different way. Think about the process and purpose of reading in a new way. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, pick up an ergodic novel. You won’t regret it.
Written by Megan G.
April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.