The House of Leaves Memo

I met Mark Z Danielewski in 2014. He’s charming, fiercely intelligent and a writer whose work I admire, even if I don’t always find a connection to it. In 2001, he published his first novel (although it was published by Pantheon Books, the extent to which Danielewski was involved in the design and production of the book clarifies his imprimatur), House of Leaves, to which this short memo is directed.

Dear HoL. Dear Editors. Dear Johnny, Zampano and Will. Dear Pelafina.

It is periodically suggested, proposed even, that House of Leaves will be published as a digital text. An eBook of some sort. Almost certainly enhanced (about which more, later) and supplemented in some manner to offer value to the digitally-enabled reader, whose attention will otherwise slip away from pages bearing a facsimile of print to their social media feeds, their Facebooks and their Twitters, to their surroundings that cannot possibly be an armchair, or a sofa, because if digital surely frees us from anything, it is the abject misery of reading somewhere comfortable and safe, somewhere with tea, or strong coffee and a single light behind our heads, throwing shadows onto the page.

House of Leaves (you’ll excuse me referring to you in the first person?) is book as artefact. It attends to the idea of the book as Citizen Kane does to film, or Welles’ War of the Worlds to radio drama. It embodies something unsayable, although I shall certainly attempt to say it here, and in doing so, renders itself perfectly unadaptable into any other medium. The thing about unsayable things though, is that they can say thing about what is not possible, by means of what is.

The limitations of e-text, as we currently encounter it, are those of process, and of related form. The eBook is a reproduction of the printed book; in that it arises from the same word-processed source, sometimes rendered through a page-layout software, sometimes not, but regardless; text unaltered from that which will be set, printed and bound. It is tied to the physicality of the book by a tangled skein of commercial opportunity and myopia. For most texts, regardless of their content, this is not an unideal scenario. A best-selling thriller, the motion of which is forward, always forward into the unknown and the solving of a case, or reconciling a body, is served well by an eBook edition. The clumsy rendition of page-turning on an eReader is a scant inconvenience to bear. For a book designer, the sudden replacement of typographic choices is galling, but not necessarily about to induce a fainting spell. Books, for the most part, are adaptable things. The form has survived for so long in part because of that adaptability, rather than in spite of it. Even the Kindle’s facility for increasing typesize, offering a readable text without recourse to magnifying lenses or powerful microscopes, doesn’t dent the book’s permanence, even in a digital form.

Then there is House of Leaves.

On the one hand, there is the sheer physicality of the book. I do not refer to its heft, or the shape and size of the object itself. Rather the manner in which it demands to be read. Buried inside those pages is a reminder of the potential every airport paperback has forgotten, or had lobotomised. The book is a thing, a thing to be turned and handled with care. That we have to shift the book around in our hands to read it is just one thing that will collapse under an iPad’s auto-rotation ‘feature’. We will be denied something fundamental to the book’s content, unless we cripple some small, minor, but inherent function of the digital. Unless the construction of the digital edition attends to this; makes it a feature of the reading experience just as the footnotes and pacing are a feature of the print original. Then, of course, it’s an app, not a book, because eBook file formats cannot accommodate textual play without rendering every page as an image file. Every single page. But is that important?

Paper is thin, and words require our full attention lest we miss something.

The first question that ought to be asked before attempting a transposition1 of House of Leaves, is ‘what is the book?’

The book is unease. It is the paranoia that sets in when you are sure there is something else in the house with you. It is invasion (I treasure the examination of the Uncanny that House of Leaves contains. The origins of the term are accompanied and surrounded by an example—as if in situ—of the affect) and it is dread. That it is contained within 705 sequential pages only highlights this. A book offers escape, a place in which we can imagine and explore another life, another world. The escape offered by House of Leaves is not safe, or comforting. It crawls under the skin and it’s trickery, the slippage between reality and fiction within those pages, is anything but a welcome escape. The formal qualities of its design, too, implicate this. Our relationship with a written text is comfortingly linear, is based on a knowledge that the book is limited by endpapers and cover, that it has been brought down somehow and confined. A book should not escape those pages and infect our imagination, demand to be held up to a mirror and deciphered. It should not be the subject of discussion forums as to what exactly is going on in there.

All of those things are possible, as this “book” (of which this memo is an excerpt) makes clear. They are possible, though, because those extra-textual elements have been designed into the work. They should not be possible within the conventions of a novel.

But here we are, and there they are, and now the question is: What might a digital edition of House of Leaves attempt to do with that?

Let us be clear. Were House of Leaves to be directly adapted into a new form, with every footnote, typographic trick, intertextual referent, typeface and layout completely intact then it will have failed. The nature of the book - as a book - is part of the power of the story. We don’t read it so much as it allows us to glimpse something inside its pages. We make sense of what we can, and we search for the rest.

A transposition of House of Leaves has to start somewhere, though, and in the absence of the author, I offer this:

I have a folder on my laptop. It is called ‘House Of Leaves Exploration #4’. Honestly, I do not know where it came from, other than the sure knowledge that I downloaded it as a torrent file, and that this would have been sometime in the last 3 years (the age of this machine). The folder contains music files. A few I recognise from Poe’s Haunted, the rest comprise readings from the book. Mark’s voice is clearly identifiable, the rest are not. Female, male, old, young, American, Spanish. In English, in German. I had to Google it to find out what it is. In 2000, Mark Z Danielewski and Poe recorded an album’s worth of experiments, using House of Leaves as the template (template isn’t the right word, but it says something about the relationship of the book to these tracks). It isn’t available commercially, as far as I can determine.

Which is a shame. It is raw, and fragmentary. It seems unfinished somehow, but nothing can deny the power of hearing voices read the text. Reading them in your ears, through headphones that cancel every other noise in the room. If House of Leaves is suggestively claustrophobic, this targets the amygdala directly.

A digital edition of House of Leaves might draw on that album, it might use sound to inform the layers of story. It might be something we haven’t seen yet. It should not, I believe, be the same object that exists in all of those print editions, in colours and with strikeout text. Those have an audience, and they’re very happy with their story (and I’ve seen the sales figures—for a book that’s 15 years old this year, it’s still shifting very nicely thank you). The digital House is different, can be different. It can transpose what lurks at the heart of the House and make the uncanny new.

A suggestion as to where to begin:

A book is a confined space. It has covers, endpapers and signatures sewn inside. House of Leaves does things with those affordances, of course (always in service of the idea that the book is the House), but it never rejects the formal qualities of the book. A digital House of Leaves has no such affordances. It can be Navidson’s house. Confined at the beginning, maybe only the a portion of the text is visible (Zampano’s notes, for example, as Johnny finds them), expanding as it is read, as the House itself opens up. Remember too, that it can lie. A file that says it is 97 pages long might only be 97 pages long until it is read. Then it can start sprouting extra sections, commentaries and typography as much as it likes.

Digital is nothing if not dishonest.

Thank you for reading. Now, back to the book.

  1. Applied deliberately here. If House of Leaves is unadaptable, without changing some fundamental aspect of the book, then a transposition is the most sensible course.

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