Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ergodic Literature and House of Leaves

A few weeks ago, I picked up a book called House of Leaves from the library. I'd never heard of it until I came across its mention in a discussion about Paranormal Activity on The Onion A/V Club. It intrigued me enough to go out and find House of Leaves immediately. Rather than summarize the plot, which is difficult enough, I'll put Wikipedia's description of the book here, for the sake of expediency:

"House of Leaves begins with a first-person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee. Truant is searching for a new apartment when his friend Lude tells him about the apartment of the recently deceased Zampanò, a blind, elderly man who lived in Lude's building.

In Zampanò's apartment, Truant discovers a manuscript written by Zampanò that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record.

The rest of the novel alternates between Zampanò's report on the fictional film, Johnny's autobiographical interjections, a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson's brother, Tom, a small transcript of interviews to many people regarding The Navidson Record by Navidson's [wife], Karen, and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Johnny's mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled The Whalestoe Letters. Each narrator's text is printed in a distinct font, making it easier for the reader to follow the occasionally challenging format of the novel."

The description alone is daunting, though, so far, my experience reading House of Leaves has been more exhilarating (and some nights flat-out terrifying) than overwhelming. It's a really great way to immerse a reader into the world of the story. I would describe it as the adult equivalent of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid.

Though House of Leaves isn't as overt as that. The genius of it is that by the very nature of the writing - the fact that, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, it is written as if the characters wrote every word - you feel danger not only for the fictional characters, but danger for yourself for simply reading the book. It's like you're discovering something you shouldn't be seeing. You get wrapped up in the sense of discovery as you interpret hidden messages in the text, refer to footnotes and footnotes about footnotes, and you read the appendices and examine photographs. It's an obsessive and rewarding multimedia experience.

I wondered what kind of novel this could be categorized as, since it has so many elements involved I couldn't even begin to classify it. It turns out, that it falls under the description of ergodic literature. Here's a definition from

"Ergodic literature is literature that requires special effort to comprehend or read, perhaps due to a "non linear" structure. The term is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work" and hodos, meaning "path". Ergodic literature demands an active role of the reader, such that they become "users" who may need to perform complex semiotic operations to construct the reading."

So, by that definition, everything you read online is ergodic literature. This blog entry is ergodic literature. At anytime of your choosing, you can click any of the links I've provided and go on a separate path that will take you to things that I didn't write. And then that may direct you to something else that I haven't foreseen. And so on. The entire online universe is one big piece of ergodic literature.

As for House of Leaves, it's just another example of why I hope physical, paper-bound books never go away. The experience of reading House of Leaves would be miserable on a Nook or Kindle. When you read a book like this, it needs to look like this once you're done with it:

1 comment:

  1. Love the bit at the end XD. Mine looks about the same as yours lol.