HOUSE OF LEAVES: Reading the Unreadable

Mark Danielewski is one of only two writers who can cause to wake oneself up with his own screaming. So thinks Robert Macfarlane, who feels Saw lulls the viewer to sleep. And he is not the only one. For many, an eldritch screech of the eerie holds more currency than the horrific. House of Leaves made its mark in the genre when it burst upon the scene in 2000. But the book is eerie in another aspect too- for being unreadable.

Sudip Bhattacharyya, being the daring reader he is, attempts the impossible and writes an inspiring tale for all of us who fear the ghastly and the gargantuan alike.


                        I consider myself a voracious reader, or as voracious a reader one can be in this day and age of digital media and shortening attention spans. While I enjoy a wide range of fiction, be it historical novels, fantasy, sci-fi, genre fiction, or classics, I think there is a special achievement in reading the most infamous books in history.

I have given some thought into what constitutes a “tough” book to read. “Tough” books are easily recognizable if you are a literature student, and I have been a student of literature for a little more than five years. In my situation, you identify these tomes precisely on the basis of their infamy; they crop up in your syllabi and your fellow students choose to shun them for the more savoury alternatives. “Tough” books could be identified through some shallow quantifiers, be it the length of the text, the history of the writer, or the nature of the text itself. There are books which have stood the test of time and have built up a reputation for being nigh unreadable- and I humbly suggest there is a pleasure in reading the unreadable.

Consider the most popular (or the most unpopular, depending on your perspective) of these examples: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or to talk of more recent infamy, James Joyce’s Ulysses. These books are far from terrible, but a long history of “unreadability” has tarnished (or embellished) their images. While reading these texts could be an achievement of sorts, and while they provide meat to your conversations or even (dare I say) a sense of intellectual pride, is there truly a pleasure in taking up this exercise?

Artwork by Trinamoy Das

There is a heavy strain in reading these books, a strain that I feel has become more… pronounced in our modern society. These books have never been easy reads through the generations; now, the problem only seems to be increasing. Forcing myself to come out of the bubble of “important literature” that was fed to me throughout my college life, I am forced to consider whether you can defend the inscrutability of Joyce, the overlong prose of Melville. Will our generation connect with these books? Will they choose to plod through the tomes? If yes, what would make them do so?


House of Leaves is a book which almost aggressively tries to deter the reader from diving into its mysteries. It is a book of horror, and of love, but mostly it chooses to be a book of secrets.

houe of leaves
Book cover : Amazon
Stairways to Knowledge by Arnab Dey

The narrator(s) are unreliable, but their unreliability makes them human. Zampano, the blind man who compiles the narrative chunk of the book, tries to capture the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts. Conversely, the “reader” of Zampano, Johnny, is all about the unpredictability of the human mind- he doesn’t seem to add to the “main” story at all, but rather acts like a reader in the truest sense, documenting his own descent into madness while reading the book. This may seem to be just plain bad writing on the author’s part, but in reality, Mark Z Danielewiski handles the strange style remarkably well. Zampano’s facts leave us with a sense of unease; we know that we are reading something deeply private about a very bad incident, where a family moves into a house only to find its rooms expanding for some sinister force. Adding to that, the “meticulous” research that the blind man does, disintegrates into missing appendices, into footnotes and endnotes that add nothing or are simply missing. Large parts are simply struck through. We will never know the full story. Johnny echoes our reactions and our frustrations while documenting his own reactions, and while we fortunately don’t go mad while reading the narrative, his madness lends an urgency, often going beyond the pages and into our own lives.


“Reading” House of Leaves is rather deciphering it. What are the parts that matter? What are the parts that are simply designed to frustrate you? Can you go on reading without knowing why Zampano chose to strike out a long footnote? You turn the pages to an appendix that is supposed to help you, but simply find the message “pages missing”. A reader may just scowl and call Danielewiski a cruel writer. He or she wouldn’t be very far from the truth.

When Danielewski wants you to read fast, he leaves just a few words scattered

From the start of the book, the reader is powerless. He does not have knowledge, he only has opinions. Danielewiski is the one who will provide the knowledge, in this case, what happens to the characters in Zampano’s research, what happens to Zampano himself, and what happens to Johnny, who chooses to read Zampano. This knowledge is not easily gained. Like life, this knowledge is frustrating and roundabout, provided unreliably, and in the end, it boils down to a matter of trusting one’s own understanding. Do you get what happened? Here are the facts, here are the pieces of the puzzle.


                                             Can you get the whole story?




This is precisely the pleasure of reading the unreadable, when the reader travels from ignorance to knowledge. The reader, before beginning, has a few assumptions and opinions up his sleeve, he or she may have heard that this is a “tough” book, this is a book “not worth it”. Actually, reading the book strips away these opinions and lets us have something pure, a sense of discovery. This very sense in itself is the reward, no matter how inscrutable or disappointing an ending one encounters in the book. Melville chose to add long tracts of factual information about whales and whaling precisely because the reader is on a journey on a whaling boat.

Artwork by Prapti Roy

Joyce chose to add nigh inscrutable levels of complexity of language, precisely because the reader accompanies the protagonist through different sections of Dublin society, even Dublin history. It almost seems straightforward, even affectionate. House of Leaves chooses to do the very same; you are reading a perspective of an incident, disturbing in itself, even more disturbing because it is incomplete. You get overloaded with facts precisely because it is a factual text in itself. You have to read Johnny’s reactions precisely because he is the first reader.


Simply reading a book does not take away its unreadability; there will always be people who will shun these books because of its reputation, and in the case of Danielewiski, its almost open hostility. Maybe these books are a paradox. They choose to exist in niches, but within these very niches are readers who demand that these books be read as widely as possible. I am intensely happy with the sense of understanding that comes from a reading experience as frustrating and claustrophobic as House of Leaves, and I for one, wholly recommend it.


Title art by Subarnarekha Pal

Next Post on 21st July

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