Welcome, dear reader, to the Littlest Library, where guests get to choose the ONE book they’d like to save and add to the collection. This can be a physical copy of a book you own or a book that means something to you personally.
The ONE book rules
- You can choose ONE book
- see rule #1
It can be any book you like, but in the words of the Highlander, there can be only ONE.
Today I’d like to welcome Oli Jacobs to the blog to talk about his ONE book.
That One Book – House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
I remember in the early days of my writing career a piece of advice I was given by a fellow peer after the proposal of what would become my book Bad Sandwich. It was, quite simply (and I may be paraphrasing):
“People don’t want to be challenged when reading.”
It was a fair comment as, to its detriment, Bad Sandwich is an incomprehensible mess of words slapped over a basic story. But to me, and those who have managed to enjoy it, it was an attempt to bring something akin to the likes of Finnegan’s Wake – a unique experience that, when understood, gives the reader a feeling of achievement as well as enjoyment.
Consider how that is utilised in other media. In movies we have the likes of 2001 and Tenet. In video games, Dark Souls has invented a genre where difficulty overwhelms basic fun. Music? Listen to the likes of Merzbow or any Prog Rock band and tell me that doesn’t make demands of the listener …
When it comes to literature, though, the one title that I will always hold up as a shining example of a reading challenge that yields great satisfaction is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. A completely unique book in terms of presentation, story, and structure, which is equally a mystery, a horror, and according to the author themselves, a love story. The book does not translate to ebooks, is only available (I believe) as a hardback sized paperback, and becomes not so much a challenge as a test of the reader’s own narrative comprehension.
So what is House of Leaves all about? Well, it begins with a drug addict named Johnny Truant who is hired to sort through the files of late film academic Zampanò, specifically those relating to his work on a documentary called The Navidson Record. This then leads us to said documentary, which follows the life of patriarch of the Navidson family and photographer Will as he chronicles the strange goings on within the house his family move into in Virginia. All of which is accompanied by a litany of footnotes pointing towards fictional documentaries, academic materials, and other footnotes.
And that’s not even getting into the presentation of the whole thing.
Effectively this is a story about a story about a story. While Truant is our “main” character, the meat of the tale lies in The Navidson Record and the unfurling of events within the house. The horror here is showcased in abnormal growths of space, and the effect it has on the minds of those around it. What begins as an impossible corridor soon expands into a colossal labyrinth, and the breakdown of sanity and safety Will and his family attempt to endure.
This bleeds into Truant’s tale, as the mental pressure of this story causes him to feel the effects of it in his everyday life, causing him to spiral into his own vices and confront his own familial ghosts in parallel to Will facing his. In the end, there are no clear answers, no reasons tied up in a nice little bow. There is just a resolution that leaves one with the same feeling of pleasurable exhaustion as all the characters in the tale have.
How is this sense of madness conveyed? In the infamous presentation Danielewski chooses to tell his tale. The aforementioned footnotes are the first thing to show a lack of adherence to the established format of literature. They crawl up the sides of the page, consume whole sheets, and slither within themselves to create a verbal ouroboros. You then see how certain elements of the font are equally as off. The word house is always presented in green, the different narrators represented by different typefaces. Then the whole structure collapses to fit the tale, with a single word alone and vulnerable within an empty sheet, or a paragraph cut open by a window whose view is seen when the reader turns the page. All of this contributes to an inherent theme that nearly everyone who has read House of Leaves can agree upon, the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the elaborate labyrinth in which they dwell. Everything in the story loops back on itself, leads to dead ends, and contains a feeling of utter dread that leaks from the characters to the reader. You are hypnotised through that sense of narrative immersion readers crave in a book, and before you know it what once seemed like a crazy looking title has sucked you deep within its maze-like walls.
Suffice to say, I love House of Leaves. I love how it is presented, how its story unravels, and the effect it has on the reader. It has inspired the epistolary style of Wilthaven, the void-like mystery of the hole in Deep Down There, as well as countless other horrors I plan to release in the future. Specifically, it has left a mark on me that only comes from a truly inspirational work of fiction.
But a work that is not an easy read.
Those I know who have read it have treated it like marmite – some love it, some hate it. It is equally seen as genius and pretentious amongst critics. Ideas to adapt it to film or television have been instantly dismissed due to the sheer scope and feel of the story itself. It is, quite frankly, a challenge of a book that will demand a great level of concentration and understanding that those who say reading must be “fun” will balk at.
But like all challenges, once you have conquered the literary beasts, once you have gained even a base level of understanding about what is being presented to you, you will get a level of satisfaction that you will never get from the most functional bestseller.
Oli Jacobs is a bearded anomaly seen around the wilds of Southampton. His best known works include Deep Down There and Wilthaven, the latter being a Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Finalist in 2021. You can find his works on Amazon, Big Green Books, or via his website You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his newsletter. As always, he hopes you enjoy.
This sounds amazing, and I’ll be picking up a copy for sure. Thanks Oli!
Would you like to take part in the Littlest Library ONE book challenge?
Drop me an email: email@example.com with a photo of your book, and some words to explain why it’s your ONE book.
Until next time…