Well crap.

I finished House of Leaves a week ago, and I have put off writing this final post in our LiterScary Challenge series because I have no idea what to say.

I feel...cheated.

As you probably know by now, I have a positive-only policy on this site. I generally don't find it worth my time to pen negative reviews when there are so, so many great books out there that deserve an audience. It's a decision that I've felt especially good about in light of recent worrisome events. I love reading, and I like promoting the good books I've enjoyed.

I also like hosting reading challenges on this site. It's fun to branch out of my comfort zone, and having the support of other readers who are willing to read along with me helps me muscle through difficult classics and new genres I otherwise wouldn't attempt.

But here's the problem with choosing a book for a challenge: by definition, it has to be a book I haven't yet read. And sometimes, even with a considerable amount of research ahead of time, I end up selecting a book that's not a good match for my tastes.

And that, tragically, is what has happened with House of Leaves. I'm so disappointed.

I was excited to read House of Leaves when I first heard about it. I knew I wanted to do some kind of spooky horror challenge for the month of October, and when I read about this 700-page beast of metafiction, it sounded like a perfect fit. Normally I would be reluctant to spend the time reading a long book famous for its density; as a blogger, I like to get through titles quickly so I can get a post up and move on. But if I incorporated House of Leaves into a reading challenge, I would have plenty of time to read it while still maintaining my regular reading pace. I was also intrigued by the hype surrounding the book—I'm always eager to read polarizing works for myself.

As you can tell from my first three posts in the series, I started out optimistic. I was patient with Truant's footnote detours. I waded through the pages with words going in every direction. I dutifully flipped to the appendices when instructed. I slogged my way through, convincing myself I was having more fun than I actually was, because I was certain there would be a payoff at the end. Surely the various strands of the story would coalesce, Truant's role in the narrative would become clear, and I would come to care about the fate of Navidson and his family.

One month and 700 pages later, none of those things happened. I feel like I've been on a treasure hunt and the prize turned out to be an empty box.

So here is something you won't see very often on Reading With Hippos: my honest admission that I don't recommend this book. Danielewski's literary experiment may be clever, but it's empty. It's not a gratifying experience to go through the grueling process of reading a book and come away with nothing—no finality, no emotional connection, no substance. All I had after closing the covers for the last time was a desire to get the last month of my life back.

And the sinking sense that I should have just picked a Stephen King novel and called it good.

So for me and the Kansas City Royals, I guess it's better luck next year.

The title of this post is a reference to the T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.” It would be a far better use of your time to read it than House of Leaves. You can find the text here.


This is the third post in our LiterScary Challenge series, taking place during the month of October. Click here for a list of all posts or for more information on the Challenge.

I've journeyed a couple hundred pages deeper into House of Leaves, and if I couldn't before, I can definitely see now why some readers give up on it. Chapter IX in particular is so disjointed, and the formatting so distracting, it takes a patient and motivated reader to get through it.

That's not to say I can't appreciate what Danielewski is doing. He's writing about a house that is really a labyrinth, and making the text into a labyrinth itself is a clever way of stressing the point. The random boxes of text, the upside-down and backwards sections, the footnotes that begin to loop back on each other, all of it has the same disorienting effect on the reader that the characters experience as they explore the seemingly endless passages of the house. Frustrating though they are, the stylistic choices are effective.

Still, I didn't feel compelled to read Chapter IX with a figurative magnifying glass, analyzing every tidbit for hidden meaning. Maybe that kind of close reading would be rewarding for some readers, but for me, the goal was just to muddle through, glean what information I could, and move on with the story. House of Leaves is the kind of book that you could spend hours upon hours dissecting and analyzing if you were so inclined. Since I have plenty of other books on my plate this month, I'm going with a more middle-of-the-road approach, reading fairly quickly to maintain rhythm but stopping short of skimming.

After the chaos of Chapter IX, I found I quite enjoyed Chapter X. Again the formatting was a little strange—with only a few lines per page, I felt like I was flipping through amazingly fast after the slog of the previous chapter. It's as if Danielewski purposely accelerates the pace here, matching the breathless action of Reston and Navidson's rescue attempt with a fast and furious reading experience for his audience. I'm growing ever more aware that Danielewski isn't just telling a story, he's creating a physical experience for anyone who picks up this book. He wants us to feel what his characters feel and accomplishes that by manipulating the text on the page.

Danielewski has me hooked with the story of the Navidsons and their crazy house. I've fully bought into the mystery of a house that is constantly shapeshifting and the adventure of exploring the unknown (and possibly unknowable). I'm less enthralled by Johnny Truant's part in the drama. Most of his asides feel long and draggy to me, and other than documenting his descent into madness, I don't get the point of it all. OK, so reading Zampano's writing about the house is freaking him out. He is slowly but surely losing his mind, and on the way is making lots of bad decisions and objectifying lots of women. I get it. I'm just not convinced yet why I should care.

I'll be back in a week or so with another update on my House of Leaves progress. And by the by, if you're looking for more Halloween-themed reading, check out my recommendation for the terrifically scary horror novel Bird Box.