House of Leaves as a Print Artifact

Cover of House of Leaves

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski

2000

PS3554 .A5596 H68

Aren’t I done with House of Leaves yet?  This is a book designed for obsession (Exhibit A), and since I don’t want to just get stuck here, I’m not going to write too much more about it.  But given my general preoccupation with formats, I shouldn’t write multiple posts about a book that goes out of its way to be a physical print-based object without addressing that aspect of it.

Of course, I am more conscious of print because I’ve been thinking about e-readers in various ways in my professional life. E-readers today are intended to provide a book-like experience. They have black and white screens that can be changed in size and allow you to turn pages back and forth, allowing the reader to move through the text one page at a time (like a quarter falling down a staircase).  There are also iPads, which provide a little more flexibility because they’re not intended to only be e-readers, and have more allowance for things like color, images, etc.  But it’s a book like House of Leaves that shows to what extent e-readers are based on particular assumptions about how people read.

(Full disclosure: I’ve used e-readers before, but I am deeply suspicious of them for many reasons and thus don’t have and don’t plan to buy one.  If I had one, I would use it only for pdfs and possibly the occasional public domain book that I’m having trouble finding in print. This will hold up until something really compelling changes (“it’s almost as good as print at doing exactly what print already does!” is not compelling.) So these are my biases.)

So. House of Leaves. From what I understand, there exist several editions of the book and they look different from each other, but the one that I read had the word “house” in blue and all sentences concerning the minotaur in red and struck through in black. Some of the footnotes are also linked to the text with semaphore symbols instead of numbers. Now, we’re already outside the capabilities of many e-readers, which provide only black-and-white e-ink text. I’m not sure whether it can get outside of ASCII, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a challenge.  But let’s suppose you had one that uses color and can reproduce these symbols. There’s still the matter of font. I believe that some of them allow you to choose a font of your preference, but I don’t know of any that can do two or three different fonts on the same page—a necessity for this book, because it is important to distinguish the various voices in the footnotes from each other.  Not only that, it’s quite useful to try to keep all the footnotes on the appropriate page, so you’d need a way to deal with that. Ideally, the screen would be the same size as a page of the book, so that everything could stay on the same page and still be legible. This becomes even more important when you get to some of the more complex layouts, with the multiple columns (something the Kindle 2 couldn’t handle at all; I don’t know whether newer models have corrected this) and inset boxes and that sort of thing, and the pages that use white space intentionally, where the placement of the text matters.  Let’s not even get into the parts of the book in which sentences stretch across the two-page spread instead of being contained on one side.

It turns out that the actual appearance of the page is important to the story in a way that most aren’t, which of course is always going to make translation to another format difficult. Early e-reader studies, for instance, revealed a lot of problems with format-sensitive texts such as poems.  But we do have a machine that can faithfully reproduce the appearance of a page on a screen, the iPad.  However, there is still the little matter of orientation. This amuses me because it’s kind of a feature that the iPad can change from portrait to landscape—but in this case, you want to turn it around and around without that happening.  Looking on the internet, I see that it’s actually able to lock orientation, so I suppose that isn’t a huge barrier.

However, these are all the superficial things.  There’s still the question of how you read the book.  Personally, I needed two bookmarks. Keeping track of where in the book I was when I found myself gallivanting off into a multipage footnote, which eventually sent me off into an appendix, which may have had footnotes of its own or might have sent me to another appendix itself. It’s intentionally complex and I needed to flip back and forth in order to remind myself where I came from.  I’m sure there’s some way that you could try to simulate this electronically – a list of places that are bookmarked? – but it’s certainly not what it is designed for.

Then, too, a major strength of e-books is that they are convenient. They are small and easy to carry around.  This is emphatically not the case with House of Leaves, and it shouldn’t be. The very bulk and inconvenience of the book further emphasizes the general maze-like and intentionally intimidating nature of the book.  In essence, House of Leaves was designed with print in mind, and makes no apologies for the fact.

Does this matter? After all, there are plenty of e-books that do things that can’t be done in print; different formats just have different capabilities.  Of course. But there are a few important points to be made from it…

1)      It says a lot about what we think books are.  We expect that a book is read linearly from the front cover to the back.  We expect that it is the meaning conveyed in the book’s words that matter and not the way those words are arranged on the page, and certainly not the font. We expect that readers are only looking at one page at a time, and not trying to read several different parts of the book at the same time.  And we assume that reading is not a physically challenging activity.  I’m pointing out these assumptions not because they are wrong—for most people, they usually aren’t—but because they are such strong expectations that we don’t usually notice that this is what we expect.

2)      In any given format, a very small number of texts will take full advantage of everything the format can do.  We’ve been using print for centuries, but how many books do everything that print can do? Not many. This is one of them. The same is true of e-books; there’s a vast array of things that e-books could do, but so far, almost all of them don’t.  (Digression: I remember once hearing about a book that was just a list of unbound pages in a box. You could read them in any order you wanted.  I doubt it had an interesting plot, though.)

3)      Whoever says we can move entirely from one format to another and lose nothing in the process is simply wrong.  To prove this by writing a large, complex book that readers have to struggle through at great length may seem like undue effort to prove a very simple point. But, well, for me to criticize a lack of brevity is simply silly at this point.

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4 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

4 responses to “House of Leaves as a Print Artifact

  1. Doug Faust

    Of course, it’s not to say that what the author did with this text is particularly easy, even in print. I can just imagine him going from publisher to publisher, only to be told that while the idea is interesting, the publisher’s printer just “couldn’t do that”. I wonder if the author wrote anything on that topic…

  2. “Easy” isn’t exactly what I would call it, no.

    Here’s an interview with Danielewski that I find pertinent. An excerpt:

    “But here’s the joke. Books have had this capability all along. Read Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker, Cummings. Look at early 16th century manuscripts. Hell, go open up the Talmud. Books are remarkable constructions with enormous possibilities. We may be using a 300 MHz G3 to finish the layout of my book, but to get from the first page to the last takes impossible seconds. Not a second but seconds. And yet you can pick up a book–even an encyclopedia–and get from one to a thousand in much less than that. You can even access several pages at the same time. And you can carry this magical creation with you, write in it, and never need to hunt down conversion software to find out what you wrote and read years ago. But somehow the analogue powers of these wonderful bundles of paper have been forgotten. Somewhere along the way, all its possibilities were denied.

    I’d like to see that perception change.”

    There’s also a reference to “ruler-wielding didacts,” which I love, and a reference to “someone on the subway spinning a book as they’re reading it” which is what I did.

    As for finding a publisher, the blurb suggests that he didn’t initially wait for that, but began passing it around as “a heap of paper”… perhaps much like the one described in the book, that Johnny Truant is working with? It also seems that at least some of it was published on the internet (elsewhere, I’ve seen claims that the book was published on the internet originally). I’d like to compare the two versions; even if complete, I suspect it’s a very different experience and hence a different text in a way that most conversion from one format to another are not. But I’m not sure it was complete.

  3. Ftaires

    Spine. Distance from the bottom of “Leaves” to the top of the Pantheon logo is 5 1/2 inches.

    Title Page. The title of Leaves is 5 1/2 inches long. Also, “with introduction and notes by” is 5 1/2 inches from the bottom of the page.

    Contents Page. The Contents are 5 1/4 inches long.

    Dedication. “This is not for you.” starts 5 1/4 inches from the right side of the page.

    Muss es sein? “Muss es sein?” starts 5 1/4 inches from the right side of the page.

    Throughout book: Footnote text seems to have a max width of 5 1/2 inches. One exception found on page 434 where the footnote stretches across onto the next page for a length of 11 inches (5 1/2 + 5 1/2).

    Page 110. The blade of the red key is 5 1/2 inches long.

    Pages 120-143. Distance between the blue boxes is 5 1/4 inches. They are also 5 1/4 inches from the bottom of the page. As well as being 5 1/2 centimeters square.

    Pages 294 and 295. Distance between “Sn-” and “-a-” is 5 1/2 inches.

    Pages 464 and 465. The distance between the bottom of the text on page 464 and the bottom of the text on page 465 is 5 1/2 inches.

    Page 549-552. … and Pieces all have a common width of about 5 1/4 inches.

    Page 564. The text of La Feuille is 5 1/2 inches long.

    Page 569-572. Sketches & Polaroids all have a common width of about 5 1/4 inches.

    Pages 582 and 583. Collages #1 and #2 each have a width of about 5 1/4 inches.

    Page 658-662. Appendix III all have a common width of about 5 1/4 inches.

    Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil is 5 1/2 inches tall.

    Throughout book. Paragraphs start roughly 5 1/4 inches from the right side of the page.

    Page 513: The bottom of “Here’s what the title page said:” is 5 1/2 inches from the top of the page. The band Liberty Bell and Johnny also talk about their song “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway.”

    The beginning to the end of The Navidson Record is 554 pages. Roughly one quarter short of the entire book.

    Margin space for text on your blog? Yup: http://i.imgur.com/r1GhV.jpg

    • Haha. Speaking of wielding rulers!

      Thanks for pointing all this out; that’s an aspect of print that I hadn’t considered that seems very much tied to the format.

      Also, I’m sorry it took so long to approve your comment. I’ve been away from home and away from my computer.

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