House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
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.