I love to read. In fact, I’m quite a fanatic about it. I eat
through books like tasty snacks, devouring one after the other and
hardly ever stopping for a break between volumes. I have a huge queue
of books I want to read, and therefore I rarely go back and re-read a
book, no matter how much I liked it the first time. There’s just not
enough time in my schedule to accommodate books I’ve already read, on
top of all the books I want to read but haven’t gotten around to yet.
There have been a few exceptions, of course. Sometimes a book is so
thought-provoking that I can’t stop at a single reading. I might put it
down, think about it, discuss it with friends, and then pick it up a
few months later for a second read-through. Even so, usually after the
second read I’ve gotten it out of my system, and after that I’m back on
the trail of the ever-growing pile of new books.
There has, however, been one book that I have come back to time and time again: Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
I’ve obsessed about it, stayed up late reading it, and had nightmares
because of it. It is as engaging as it is terrifying, as enlightening
as it is confusing. It is easily the most intriguing novel I have ever
come across. And I’m not the only one who thinks House of Leaves
is a special book. There are entire internet forums, web sites, and
blogs devoted to plot discussion and theories about what different
aspects of the book might mean. House of Leaves is a labyrinth
of riddles and mysteries. There are no definitive answers, but that
doesn’t stop fans of the book from looking for them, over and over.
So what is the story about? I’m hesitant to talk about the plot (or rather plots,
plural), because one of the great things about this book is its ability
to surprise the reader on every page. It would be a shame to ruin
that. I will, however, say this: it is not a comedy. It’s not
something to read when you’re in the mood for a light-hearted romp. It
is a book about fear, but more importantly, it is a book dealing with
the very fear that lurks in all of us: our fear of the unknown, our
attachment to old patterns and habits, our love of our custom-made
comfort zones. Danielewski’s house is not the comfortable home you
might want it to be.
Of course, there are a lot of scary books out there. Many authors
have made a career out of frightening readers. So what makes House of Leaves
so special, so noteworthy? The answer will be obvious the first time
you pick up the book and leaf through the pages. Entire sections
written in mirror image, formatting that is more like experimental
architecture than a book layout, colored text, and multiple font sizes
are just some of the tools used to manipulate the audience. These
features are not just implemented randomly for the sake of gimmick,
Everything Danielewski does within the book has a meaning and
purpose, even if that meaning isn’t readily obvious. Shapes within text
layout reflect the feelings of the characters. Symbols and colors send
blips of messages that eventually form patterns of meaning. It all
comes together and makes sense in the end (or so Danielewski claims),
but the ride can be bumpy and sometimes downright terrifying.
Surprisingly, House of Leaves is not a difficult or
laborious read. In fact, despite the 700-plus page count, the book
reads quite quickly. The story is highly engaging, and the sub-plots
are like delicate vines that wrap around the reader’s imagination.
You’ll never feel a lack of curiosity for what happens next, because the
momentum of events within the chapters accelerates at every page turn.
If anything, you’ll have trouble putting the book down. And once you
finally do, the rest of us who got addicted before you will be waiting
at the internet forums, ready to discuss your theories about why a
certain chapter starts the way it does, or whether certain characters
can be trusted. Then you’ll learn about other theories, have a few
“a-ha!” moments, and before you know it you’ll be wanting to read the
book again just to see if you have a better grip on the Big Picture this
And perhaps, eventually, the metaphor of searching for meaning will stop you dead in your tracks.
House of Leaves is available from most major retailers in
several versions, including a black-and-white, a two-color, and a
full-color edition. The content is nearly the same across versions, but
the dynamics of the color editions make them well worth any minor
difference in price. I would not recommend this book for very young
readers, or those who are easily affected by manipulative storytelling.
This book can be intense and terrifying at times, and includes strong
language and imagery, including sexual references, that may not be
appropriate for all readers.