“My interest is in how meaning is communicated via language, and I believe the shape, positioning, even the color of the language has an effect on meaning.”

Mark Z. Danielewski

In an interview with Google, Mark Z. Danielewski comments on the didactic way he writes his novels. This might come as a surprise if you are familiar with his books. As readers experience his fiction, they initially find it disorienting. This chaos induces a kind of vulnerability where learning takes place.

The first time I read House of Leaves, I felt disbelief combined with humility. You’re telling me I need a mirror to read this book!? Who does this guy think he is? I remember my husband laughing as he saw me turning the book upside down and around in circles as I read. The footnotes have footnotes!

This reaction is no surprise to MZD. After meeting with readers on his book tours, he hears, again and again, how they struggle through those early pages, only to build the skills necessary to apprehend the words and images on the page. When we read this way, attending to the prose, we celebrate a vitality in language. This approach to storytelling resonates with writers like Paul Auster, “For me, a paragraph in a novel is a bit like a line in a poem. It has its own shape, its own music, its own integrity.”

I’ve had a similar experience reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time with our community. It taught me to slow my roll and swim in the language. The longest sentence in that novel appears in volume two and is 958 words long. This slow swim opened my eyes to the ways language works. I now read in a way that anticipates what’s around every corner, pausing at each comma while barely holding my breath with anticipation for what’s to come.

“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.”

W.H. Auden

In the recent five-book series, The Familiar, Mark Z. Danielewski invites readers to follow Xanther, a 12-year-old girl living in LA, as she searches for her cat. The uncanny feeling you embody while reading the series is two parts story and one part reading posture.

Reading wildly disorienting books like this teaches us about our minds’ hidden recesses. Mark Z. Danielewski is counting on it. Your thoughts converge with the words on the page. The beautiful result is the power of the text to teach and delight – to challenge and disturb. As you read, you start to embody the quintessential quality of Xanther:

“Curiosity was her constant.”

More recently, I’m learning to read differently in our Himalayas of Literature Course Series. For different reasons, Infinite Jest requires readers to learn to read differently to appreciate the kaleidoscopic display of characters and implicit connections. The Waves, with every glorious syllable that Virginia Woolf strings together, tickles the reader’s imagination in similar ways.

When you can travel through a book like Infinite Jest, holding loosely to the logic or reason that typically accompanies reading, you experience a kind of invention. On the surface of the text, your mind collides with the author’s, and that convergence echoes the same magic you felt the first time you learned to read.

Each of these books invites me to read in new ways, and every time I succeed, I feel the same rush my four-year-old does as he sounds out a new sentence. When he gets to the end of a line he has never read, his face lights up, and he hugs me. It is pure joy – it is magic.

In his generous account of the history of reading, Alberto Manguel remembers looking out the car window as a child and recognizing what he saw for the first time:

“And yet, all of a sudden, I knew what they were; I heard them in my head, they metamorphosed from black lines and white spaces into a solid, sonorous, meaningful reality. I had done this all by myself. No one had performed the magic for me. I and the shapes were alone together, revealing ourselves in a silently respectful dialogue. Since I could turn bare lines into living reality, I was all-powerful. I could read.”

Alberto Manguel

This is just one way Alberto Manguel opens a thousand eyes of curiosity when he reads. I am curious how we lose this magic when we refuse to read outside of our comfort zone. Somewhere along the line, we start to see reading as a talent we have instead of a skill to improve. Mark Z. Danielewski comments on the process of building up an imagination capable of apprehending this kind of magic that comes from the ecstasy of communication:

“Every novel requires an investment of initial imagining. Once that’s there, you can move much more quickly and adeptly around themes.”

Mark Z. Danielewski


Mark Z. Danielewski on Changing the Way We Read