I've been trying to read House of Leaves for a couple years now, but don't have the opportunity to sit down with a big physical book for long stretches of time. I do, however, have much more time available to read ebooks.

Does the experience of House of Leaves change or diminish as an ebook? I ask particularly because the ergodic artifact quality of House interests me as a graphic designer with a specialty in print media. How effectively does House's ergodicity translate into the digital text? (Is there a particular ebook version which is notably more or less successful in this translation?)


1 Answer 1


It wouldn't work - House of Leaves does not translate to ebook format unless you have prior knowledge of how the book is supposed to work. Even then, you'd lose detail. I say this because, while the textual features of the book itself may not be missing, many of the cues that would lead a reader to question whether there's meaning buried at all would be lost. Additionally, physical properties of the book and pages could easily be lost as well. It's a book heavily reliant on physical interaction with the text, and in the absence of that, many details are lost.

A rare exception might be possible where the aspect ratio of the pages is maintained and they're kept in their exact current formatting - but even then, not all information about the text is preserved. My answer is going to focus specifically on the visual/physical cues which, while present in book form, may not be present in ebook form. I'm going to post pictures of some pages in House of Leaves to explain why this is the case. Specifically:

  • Pages have meaning in the way they're stacked together, and that meaning can easily be lost in an ebook format.
  • Very often, finding content in House of Leaves takes work. There's a learning curve to navigating the book, and it's often quite misleading by design. Text searchability downright ruins this.
  • Bookmarks are a physical indicator of where you're getting lost in the book as you read it. You're going to need a lot of them. An e-text doesn't have the same kinesthetic/erdogic value.
  • Your ability to actually physically see through the pages is sometimes key to understanding the dimensional interplay between them.
  • Not necessarily a "missing cue," but pages are mirrored, reversed, rotated, and modified text in different fonts, all over the place. This would be present in the ideal ebook, but it'd make it harder to navigate the text.
    • However, if an ebook text only shows you one page at a time, this is going to destroy this information entirely. You can't view the book one page at a time - you have to view both the left and right sides simultaneously.
  • While I don't go into detail about this in my answer, some ebook formats lose color information. The coloration of words varies throughout the book, and if you're missing that, you're missing critical symbolic information.

The ultimate point, though, is that House of Leaves often requires you to think of the book as a physical stack of pages. Cues in the book rely on you physically being able to look at and "through" it. At times, it asks you to think about looking into the book - as if there's a tunnel or a pathway somehow vertically winding its way through the two-dimensional pages. Ebooks make this extremely difficult to capture, and so many details could be lost.

The following details and images could be considered minor spoilers. I've taken pains not to divulge anything that abjectly changes the meaning of the book, but it's hard not to show the content of the book. Also, bear in mind that any difficulties present in an ebook format are also going to be present in pictures of a physical book.

I've smallified the images here for convenience - click through for full-size images.

The densest chapter with regard to this problem is Chapter IX. This is because of a sequence of windows in the middle of the page, as well as constant rotations and reversals that have to be made in order to successfully navigate the text.

Think this is bad? There are about 40 more pages like this next to each other. But you don't read them at the same time, oh no, that would be too easy.

It's pretty easy to see from this picture alone that you might encounter some difficulties in reading the text as an ebook. Flipping pages over, constant zooming in and out, font sizes, etc. all contribute to mechanical problems that could arise.

But there's actual textual meaning being lost, too...

I've uploaded a video of me simply flipping through a tunnel in the book. With the application of a little kinesthetic thought, there's a physical sense given to the reader that this tunnel is actually inside the book. If you look at the pages as they're stacked together, you look at the wall you reach at the end of the tunnel, and you look back, and it's supposed to feel like you can look through the book.

This isn't something that's going to be very easy to pick up on using an ebook. Ebooks make it difficult to look at past pages and think about them being a stack of pages. I'm picking the most heavy handed of the times this occurs, but rest assured that this occurs everywhere and often, in subtle, minor ways. Picking up on them is going to be a confusing and difficult task in an ebook.

Flipping through the pages

(You can't make out the text, but you can make out the direction of the text, and that's what matters. The text is spoilers, anyway.) Note that the important part here isn't the formatting - I'm assuming an ebook format could preserve that. Even assuming formatting is preserved, what it's still missing is the feeling like on the left is the part of the tunnel you've been through, and on the right is the part of the tunnel you have yet to see.

Not only that, but the actual navigation of the content of the book is, in and of itself, also a maze.

The difficulty of finding content in the book is an intentional and variable part of the experience of reading it. Some things are supposed to take longer to find, and some things are quite simple and easy. Text searchability removes this dimension of the text.

Page 114 has "See Chapter Six, footnote 82, Tom's Story as well as footnote 249. -- Ed." Except footnote 249 is incredibly difficult to actually physically find in the book, despite the fact that it's four or five pages long. Why? Because it's designed to look like the rest of the text that surrounds it. It's built to confuse you: you can find footnote 250 all right, and it's right next to some text that looks like the text in footnote 249 - but this text isn't a footnote. So you find 250 first, and then flip back trying to find 249, gloss right over it, end up suddenly at footnote 246, and wonder, "wait, how did I get here? I was just at footnote 250!"

If this example were any less subtle, it would be hard to spot in an ebook. And believe me, some of them are hard to spot in a physical book. This brings me to a point related to the difficulty of finding text. It's similar, but not quite the same...

The sheer quantity of bookmarks - and their positions in the books - is part of the significance of the text. This is hard to reconstruct, but as you read the text, you'll quickly find that one bookmark isn't enough. Then, two. Then, three. At one point, I required seven bookmarks in order to trace my path through the text. Where are the bookmarks? The bookmarks are where you get caught, snagged on some thorn in the book's side. It's a physical indicator that confounds your perception of your own progress.

Here's an example.

Page 121 says, in footnote 148, "See Exhibit One." That takes you to page 530, where you read some text, and then see "For references, see bibliography in Chapter IX." That means that you first have to find Chapter IX, which I hope I've already demonstrated is supposed to be not a straightforward task.

That takes you to page 152, which despite being a literal bibliography, is worth reading. Then it's back to page 530 to finish reading, then back to page 121. Cool, done with that chain. But then there's another footnote on page 121. Footnote 152 on the same page reads, "See Chapter XVII." (Yes, you're supposed to read it.) So now you're off to Chapter XVII. Chapter XVII is a fun house of links, starting before the chapter even begins with footnote 357, which requires that you look up a poem. Back from looking up a poem, now you're into the body of the work.

At this point, I'm going to start skipping further sub-links. Then, when reading Chapter XVII, you'll encounter footnote 375, taking you to Appendix F. Then later, once you're done and return to Chapter XVII, you'll run into "See pages 22-23" in a footnote. Then later, once you're done with that and return to Chapter XVII, you'll run into footnote 391, which says "See footnote 310 and corresponding reference. -- Ed." (Thanks, editor ol' pal.)

Footnote 310 has footnotes of its own. Those footnotes take you to other places in the book, and now you need five bookmarks. And look, honestly, I didn't want this example to be 450 words long, but that's kind of the point, isn't it?

While in theory this experience could be simulated on a desktop computer, actually physically doing it is an intrinsically different experience. Reading this book on a computer may even be faster, but for this reason, it'd encourage you to gloss over details that may be relevant, where the book encourages you to absorb a lot of irrelevant and distracting information. You're supposed to forget, a little, about where you were and what you were doing there, and how you went down this rabbit hole, anyway - and the omnipresence of irrelevant information is intrinsically meaningful.

Frequently, in the book, your ability to see through the pages becomes pertinent. When two pages overlap, as in the following example, you end up with the ability to see where text is, but not what that text says. When you're not supposed to know (example later), it's shown using various techniques. But sometimes you are supposed to know what it says, but you're not supposed to know until a little bit after.

I managed to capture one of these pages, so you can see what I mean:

Notice how it looks like you hit a wall at the end of that page? That's an effect caused by two overlapping pages, each on the flipside of the book.

But hey, guess what those pages actually look like?

Yyyyep, those are 45 degree rotations. Speaking of which...

Many blocks of text in House of Leaves are written upside-down, sideways, at slants, and sometimes even in literal circles. This forces you to physically turn the book over. Other blocks of text are written in backwards type - I physically held my book up to a mirror to read certain sections of text.

This level of interaction is fairly significant in the book. While it's ambiguous what the meaning is, I tend to interpret it (as do many others) as symbolic of the "ease" of being dragged through a maze.

And heck, you know those pages above? Some pages are even written at a 45 degree angle. Some are written at a 45 degree angle upside down. Try reading that on your stinkin' computer!

Finally, I want to leave you with a curiosity that I actually didn't notice the first time I read this book. Because, you know, it's a physical copy.

Page 333, neat.
Hey wait, there's something weird on this page.
What? How'd that get there? And why's it printed so close to the inside of the book?

I hope I've provided a few case examples for the sort of information that would be lost in an e-text format. I wish you the best in reading Leaves!

  • 3
    This is an awesome answer to a question very adjacent to the one I've asked; I'm asking about the success of existing House ebooks, not the feasibility of creating a successful House ebook. That said, I'll likely bounty this amazing monstrosity even though I can't accept it.
    – BESW
    Mar 10, 2017 at 11:00
  • 3
    @BESW Apologies for addressing an adjacent point! I... may have gotten a little carried away...
    – user80
    Mar 10, 2017 at 11:04
  • @BESW "Existing House ebooks"… Are there any existing House of Leaves ebooks? Are you just talking about PDF scans of the book here?
    – tobiasvl
    Apr 10, 2017 at 8:14

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