… of Houses and Leaves

I am a bad reader. Which is to say that, I can read – words tend to make sense when strung together, and I can comprehend their meaning ok – I’m just not good at actually getting through an entire book. Which is a much longer way of saying I lack dedication when it comes to reading.

My wife and I have been downsizing, throwing out things that we’ve not used or looked at in years. Last Saturday she found a book in her pile that she wasn’t sure if she’d read or not. It wasn’t a thin book by any means. By the end of the day – a good five or so hours later – she’d read it. The whole thing. Cover to cover. It’s an amazing feat and something that constantly impresses me about her. I once spent a whole day watching her hate-read one of those Twilight books. A thick one too. I knew she was hate reading it, because she spent the whole day staring it down with a look that suggested the book had just walked into our house without knocking and shat on our carpet. She hated it, but she read it all. Every last word.

What I lack in reading ability, I make up for with collecting. I am fantastic at buying books. I have a shelf full of them that that are either half read or not even started. I didn’t always suck at reading. In my early teens I was a casual Stephen King fan, managing to work my way through some of his better known titles. The appeal with King was probably to do with the forbidden nature of his work; even though my high school library had a decent King collection, they weren’t available to anyone outside of year eleven or twelve without a written consent from a parent. And if they were bad enough that you needed parental consent to read them, then there was no way Mum was going to give me consent to read them. I knew it was bullshit though. The only reason King was targeted was because he was a well known name. The same shelves that housed his books were also home to Dean Koontz and Clive Barker, both free and available to anyone to read. So rather than cry over the lack of access to King, I moved onto Barker and became a huge fan, devouring as many of his books as I could [1].

And as I sit her and wonder what happened between when I used to be a reader and now, it dawns on me – the Internet happened. Once upon a time MTV became the scapegoat for the short attention spans of teens. Now this disease has spread, and the Internet has managed to wriggle its dirty tendrils into our brains, distracting us from more heady and fruitful pursuits. And once it has you, it doesn’t let go. If I can’t watch a TV show or movie – which is a mostly passive experience – without constantly leaning over to check my laptop or iPhone, how the hell am I supposed to engage with words on a page that make me do all of the work?!

Selfish pricks.

A large part of my I suck at reading problem is that I have a very poor visual imagination. When I picture characters in a book they’re usually faceless cardboard cutouts or animated mannequins. If an author uses any kind of visual cue or description, no matter how small it may be, that becomes my visual representation of that character. Even when I’m attempting to write fiction, I really struggle with visualizing characters. One of my favourite books of all time is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and I think a huge part of the reason it resonates with me is because of the way Ellis deals with mistaken identity. His characters are ambiguous and interchangeable; almost faceless. They barely know who each other are. It’s something that runs through most of Ellis’ books I’ve read; Rules of Attraction, Less Than Zero and The Informers all have a running theme of mistaken identity. Ellis’s writing ties almost directly into the way I visualise the written word. Even the print version of American Psycho features a painting of a man with his face striped bare of skin and identifying features.

The cover of the novel American Psycho
The cover of the novel American Psycho

Just as Stephen King became a gateway to Clive Barker in my teens, Ellis became my first step on the path to Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced ‘Paula-nik‘). Probably best known for writing Fight Club, which became a go-to reference point for the pre-Occupy, counter-culture chanting, disenfranchised and just plain bored, Palahniuk hit home with me not because of his message, but because he was so easy to read. His characters are painted in broad strokes, and his stories move at such a brisk pace that he rarely becomes bogged down with descriptions and overly flowery prose. While his more recent work has been a bit lacking (after reading his 2008 book Snuff, I’ve decided to give him a break for a while), Fight Club, Choke, Rant and Survivor are some of my favourite books of all time. In fact, I think Survivor is one of a handful of books I can say I’ve started and finished reading more than once.

Cut to pretty much now, and while my reading life consists mostly of Batman comics [2], I have a book sitting in my pile of shame that has become the embodiment of my inability to finish books that I start. You could call it my Moby Dick [3]. I bought Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves when I was in Cape Town in two thousand and eight based on the recommendation of a good friend. Picking it up internationally was my first mistake – the edition I found wasn’t small by any means; adding at least a good one to two kilos to my luggage weight. I made a good start to it while I was away, but the denser the book became the harder it was for me to get through.

The cover of my edition of House of Leaves
The cover of my edition of House of Leaves

Explaining what House of Leaves is about is almost as hard as reading it. Our narrator is a young man named Johnny who occasionally works at a tattoo parlor. Johnny’s story unfolds as he digs deeper into the essays about the documentary film known as The Navidson Record, written by an old man named Zampanò. The Navidson Record – a film that no one can actually confirm the existance of – tells story of a family living in a house that contains a door to… well, somewhere. That’s where things start to get confusing. House of Leaves is told through several different view-points, contains footnotes upon footnotes, diagrams, essays regarding ancient architecture and design and transcriptions from The Navidson Record. Some pages are crammed with text all running in different directions, others have barely one or two words on them. Knowing where to focus on the page, and picking out important information becomes a challenge. None of the narrators are reliable, and it’s not ever clear if anything is actually real.

An actual page from House of Leaves
House of Leaves. Yup. That’s the book.

Every year or so I pick it up again, try and chip through a few more pages, but every year I am defeated. I can’t seem to quit it though. The story and the way it’s put together is entirely fascinating to me. Despite its size, the book has survived our downsizing. It currently sits in the middle of my bookshelf. Mocking me. Taunting me. Daring me to pick it up again. House of Leaves has become less of a book and more a life goal. A symbol of my inability to finish what I start. Where-as once I dreamed of spending my retirement reading through all of those classic novels people have recommended to me over the years, now I have one goal – finish reading House of Leaves.

Even if it’s out of spite.


[1] In an effort to keep this short, I’ve skipped over the Barker portion of my reading history. If you’re after a good place to start with his work, check out the short horror novellas The Hellbound Heart (which became the basis for the movie Hellraiser) and Cabal (which the movie Nightbreed is based on). If your interest lays more in fantasy than horror, check out Weaveworld and then move onto The Great and Secret Show and its sequel Everville. They’re both awesome.

[2] A topic for another day.

[3] I have also never read Moby Dick.


Author: Mark Ampersand

Budding writer, connoisseur of fine popular culture and Batman fan.

2 thoughts on “… of Houses and Leaves”

  1. I have to concur with much of this. I gaze at others who can read books in one sitting with amazement. I have similar issues with reading nowadays. It’s weird when you used to be so veracious in that way, isn’t it? Enjoyed your blog, buddy. 🙂

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