Posts Tagged ‘philosophical books’

Book #111: House of Leaves

Holy. Shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.

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House of Leaves. I…wow. Mark Z. Danielewski is a crazy motherfucker. House of Leaves is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m not sure there’s another book like it anywhere. Not only is the story (or stories, I should say) compelling and terrifying, the actual, physical experience of reading the book is also part of reading it.

The book is presented as an analytical textbook about an indie film that has gathered a cult following. The film – “The Navidson Record” – is a found-footage horror story about mysterious doors that open in famous photographer Will Navidson’s house. When a mysterious labyrinth with moving walls, a growling beast, and huge, cavernous rooms is revealed to exist inside the house, Navidson enlists a team of explorers, as well as his brother and some friends, to explore and try to get to the bottom of what is happening in his house. Running through the narrative is the strain that the cavern and its exploration has on Navidson’s relationship with his wife. It’s a little bit like the Paranormal Activity films, I’d imagine. Except that as things are revealed – through footnotes and appendices and interviews – you become unsure whether or not the film is fact or fiction.

That’s just the story of The Navidson Record. The text of the book itself is complied by tattoo parlor employee and slacker Johnny Truant. When Truant and his friend enter a dead man’s apartment, they find hundreds of pages worth of records and notes on the film that Truant feels compelled to organize into the book – House of Leaves. As Truant delves into Zampanó’s – the dead man’s – work, he finds himself drawn into a world where he questions his sanity and is forced to confront darkness in his past – and present. Truant’s story is told through lengthy footnotes throughout the actual “textbook.”

The book itself, like I said, is as much a part of the reading experience as the story it contains. The book is riddled with footnotes and symbols. Sometimes the text reads in more than one direction so you’re turning the book sideways and upside down and even moving it in a spiral to read it. Sometimes text runs along the top of the page, or the bottom of the page, or even diagonally across the page. Footnotes have footnotes, sometimes they refer you to appendices or back to previous footnotes. Sometimes you have to hunt for footnotes that aren’t where they should be. Labyrinths are key in the story, and Danielewski turned the physical book containing the story into a labyrinth. It’s completely insane.

More than that, the book is riddled with codes and secret meanings. Certain words are different colors. The word house is always printed in blue, for example. If you go online and seek out message boards you’ll find all kinds of crazy theories and things people have found in the book. There’s a coded letter to decipher, and then there’s a code within the code. There are ciphers. There’s a footnote listing famous architects and artists and if you take the first letter of all the last names, there’s a message. Other times there are codes, but you wouldn’t know it unless you really devoted yourself to decoding things, because the first few letters will be gibberish and then suddenly there are words.

The think about reading a book like this is that once you figure out that there are meanings behind the text, everything seems intentional. Why was this word misspelled? Why is this word a different font from the other? This word is missing letters, do the missing letters spell something? Why is this footnote in italics while this one is in bold? There’s even a bar of music printed in the book. Have you ever tried to seek out a piano so you can play music that you found printed in a novel you’re reading? I have. I felt insane. That book can drive you crazy, if you let it.

Let me tell you a little story about my experience reading House of Leaves. It was late. I wanted to go to bed, but I only had 30 pages until the end of a chapter. Finishing them would get me to bed a bit later than I wanted, but nothing major. But then a footnote led me to another footnote, which led me to an appendix with around 100 pages of letters. One of the letters was written in code, so I had to figure it out. There was a code within that code, and then I noticed another appendix. That appendix showed me that weird symbols connected to certain footnotes had meanings, so I had to go back and connect the meanings with the footnotes. The next thing I knew, it was 3 hours later and I still had 26 pages before the end of the chapter.

House of Leaves was an absolutely insane experience to read. It’s one of those books that could really fuck you up without all the unique footnotes and codes. Those extra elements only serve to get the book in your head a even more. It’s a horror story and a love story and the order you read the appendices and whether or not you choose to pay attention to the extra things like codes or footnotes can completely change your reading.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It changed my idea of what books can be and what they can do. I think a lot about the connection between e-books and physical books, and House of Leaves definitely added to that. Reading that book on a Kindle would not be the same. You would lose so much of the physical experience of reading the book and flipping forward and backward in search of footnotes and codes. You’d lose the sense of space when Danielewski plays with the spacing of text on the page if you were looking at it on a small screen.

Mind-fucking plot and insanity-inducing codes aside, House of Leaves definitely makes a case for physical books. The physical book is as much a character as Navidson, Truant, Zampanó, and the House. The act of reading is an experience. It even adds something to the plot, instead of just feeling gimmicky.

If you’re up for a crazy experience, I’d totally recommend House of Leaves. It’s completely nuts.

And, if you know of another book like it, please let me know. Going back to reading books with straightforward plots and nothing to decode and no mysteries to solve is a bit like going back to driving an automatic after you’ve been driving a stick shift. There’s just not as much to do.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Goodbye To Berlin 

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Book #93: The Devil and Miss Prym

Paolo Coelho has captivated me for a long time. I started, like, I think, most people have, with The Alchemist. I loved its simplicity. It felt like I was reading a fairy tale, but also like I was getting at the heart of some ethereal, philosophical idea that was so important. I’ve since read quite a few of his other books, and they always make me feel the same way.

The Devil and Miss Prym is a story about good and evil, and about temptation. In an idyllic village appreciated by tourists for its quaint, old-world simplicity and slightly resented by its ever-aging population for the way it has trapped them and made them stagnant and isolated, a stranger arrives. With that stranger comes temptation – if the village will kill just one of its members, he will give them 10 gold bars. This is part of the stranger’s experiment to discover an answer to the age-old question: are people inherently good or evil?

His vehicle for temptation is the young barmaid Chantal Prym. She is one of the youngest people left in the town, a young woman whose friends have left her behind and is keenly aware of the entire world she is missing out on while she remains trapped in her native village. Anyone who’s ever grown up in a small town and had the sense of “someday I’ll get out of here, kick the dust of this crazy old place off my boots and go out into the world and actually be somebody” will probably sympathize with her. The one gold bar the stranger promises Chantal for delivering the message of temptation to the village (and convincing them to commit murder) will be more than enough to send her into the world to start her real life.

The novel basically revolves around the villagers debating whether or not to commit murder, and who to kill if they do decide to do it, while Chantal and the stranger wrestle with their consciences and the angels and devils who speak in their ears. This provides Coelho ample opportunities for reflection on good and evil as all the characters wrestle with the same problems.

I think what I like most about Coelho’s writing is that he introduces such simple conflicts and storylines to drive his ideas forward, but they also leave plenty of room for nuances that lend themselves so well to discussing big philosophical ideas. I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but I tend to find it really inaccessible. I work better in narratives and allegories, I guess, so reading Coelho has always opened the door to more philosophical readings and musings for me. I like that.

Also, I’d read The Devil and Miss Prym before. I read it during the early days of my English degree, when I was in a MAJOR annotations phase, and when I started to read my old copy, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even though I read it for leisure, I’d annotated it. I was a little embarrassed to see how easily impressed I was with flowery language and “big” ideas back then, most of my annotations were either “Oh my gosh, capacity for evil is IN ALL OF US!” or “WHOA!!” I suppose that’s what I was getting out of the book back then, and it was kind of fun to see the parts where my opinion differed this time around, or even how I read or appreciated certain parts differently. It sort of made me want to get back into annotating books. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog is so I can always go back and reference what I thought about different things I’ve read and see if my opinion changes, but there’s something so cool and immediate about watching my past self react to different things on the physical page.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A rant about Ulysses. After that, The Little Prince

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