Tuesday, May 04, 2010


I finished House of Leaves this morning. (I guess, technically speaking, I finished the narrative last night, but I made my way through the appendices this morning.) I don't know the last time that I've been so captivated1 by a book. As an academic (or a pseudo-academic, as I like to think of myself), I have a hard time turning off the part of my brain that is analytical and critical; I am almost never able to simply enjoy something for its own sake. Mostly I'm okay with this, since I am a big critical theory nerd. House of Leaves, though, is fascinating because it simultaneously asks the reader to read simply for the sake of reading, and to be a critical, analytical reader. The book is full of footnotes, sidebars, and non-sequitors; it is, itself, partially a monograph on a film called The Navidson Record, which is a (pseudo?) documentary about a family who moves into a house only to discover that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It invites the reader to participate in its analysis of the film and of the situation, but also thwarts the reader by demonstrating how analysis is always inexact: it pushes the reader towards analyzing but then turns around and shows us how arbitrary it is to try to (en)force meaning on anything. This is, to me, simultaneously frustrating and breathtaking.

One of the book's chief intertexts is the story of Echo and Narcissus. (It also uses Jacob and Esau, and kind of uses the Minotaur--there's an entire section on the Minotaur, but it's been crossed out, so you have to read the chapter through the strikethrough, which is challenging). The Echo parts, which are earlier in the book, produce some really lovely prose:

Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate.

And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love.

There is only silence.

Ultimately, I think what I liked most about the book is the way that it challenged all aspects of my reading processes: Not only was I challenged to rethink reading in terms of how I cognitively go about it, but I was also forced to change the way that I read. I read approximately 600 words per minute under normal circumstances, and this book wouldn't let me do that. It doesn't allow for any momentum on the reader's behalf: it wants you to slow down, to look around, and to consider. (And then it tells you that you're an idiot for doing just that, since meanings are not fixed or even meaningful. But it still won't let you go; it won't let you tear through it.)

1 I mean captivated in both the positively and negatively connotated senses of the word: I have joked on Facebook about the book giving me insomnia, but it kind of did. It was very difficult to turn off my brain after reading, and I imagine that it will continue to haunt me for some time. The friend who lent it to me told me that, "HoL may cause insomnia. Not to mention obsessive-compulsive symptoms and periodic fits of vertigo. Should not be read by women who are pregnant, or combined with CNS depressants." It hasn't given me vertigo, but it has invoked a strange sense of claustrophobia unlike anything I've experienced before from simply reading. (No word yet on the obsessive-compulsive or depression symptoms; I tend towards both a bit to begin with, so that's more difficult to measure.)

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