13 Experimental Books With Unusual Formats To Stretch Your Mind And Make Your Brain Swoon

You never know what’s going to happen when you first pick up a book, but you do generally assume there will at least be sentences, periods, speech marks, and a vague sense of a beginning, middle, and end. Those things do tend to make a book a bit easier to read. But if all authors stuck to the rules, what would be the fun in that?

Sometimes it’s great to dive into a book head-first with no idea how you’re even supposed to read it. It can be super-rewarding to decipher which end of the sentence is which, or if you’re supposed to hold the book upside down. Experimental books are every bit as fun as they are challenging, and these 13 are totally worth the effort.

Image: kelly taylor/Flickr

by Emma Oulton

‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill

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There aren’t many characters in Dept. of Speculation , and none of the ones that do appear have names. The novel is fragmented — each vignette is presented as a single paragraph alone on a page — but Offill’s narrative manages to remain extremely strong, pulling the reader along as the marriage between her two central characters unravels.

‘The Princess Bride’ by William Goldman

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In William Goldman’s version of The Princess Bride , he ostensibly abridges his favorite childhood book for his son’s enjoyment; the book itself, by S. Morgenstern, is presented in short alongside Goldman’s autobiographical commentary. Here’s the confusion: no such book exists — and Goldman doesn’t have a son. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the fact this entire device is a figment of Goldman’s imagination, The Princess Bride will become your favorite book in the world that you’ve never read.

'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski

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If you thought The Princess Bride was confusing, you’re in for a shock with House of Leaves . Take a deep breath, here goes: A man discovers that his house is supernaturally warped, and makes a documentary; academic criticism is written on the documentary and curated into an in-depth academic study by an old blind man obsessed with the film; a young tattoo artist comes across this study but can find no record of the film — nonetheless, he writes his own footnotes on the old man’s work; the young man’s mother writes him a series of paranoid letters from a mental hospital; we’re all left thoroughly baffled.

‘S’ by Doug Dorst

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House of Leaves gets an update in this multi-layered offering from the creator of Lost. The novel tells one story, the footnotes tell another, and the handwritten annotations tell a love story that ties the whole thing together. Each page is so full of parallel storylines that it’s hard to know where to start; there are even internet forums dedicated to how to read the thing.

‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell

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Attachments is half written through emails, which can sometimes feel a little overdone — but not in this case. The narrator is a man whose job is to read company emails for security purposes; while reading the particularly witty messages sent between two women, he can’t help but fall in love with one of them.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret is part novel, part picture book, part graphic novel, and part flip book. It’s the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal (for picture books only), which just goes to show how confused everyone is by its format.

‘Dear Committee Members’ by Julie Schumacher

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Just when you think you’ve seen every epistolary novel there is out there, Dear Committee Members comes to shake everything up again. This bizarre book is narrated entirely through letters of recommendation written by Professor Fitger, a character whom you will learn to abhor, despite only getting to know him through his professional writing. It’s genius.

‘Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story’ by David Levithan

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Tiny Cooper is, unlike his name, larger-than-life — and so, of course, the best way for him to tell his story is through a musical. From stage directions to steamy dalliances, from sadness to show tunes, this unique and enjoyable novel will have you laughing, crying, and singing.

‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

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Time’s Arrow is told entirely backwards. Gimmicky? Maybe, but it worked for Memento. Where Christopher Nolan’s celebrated film used its reverse chronology to explore memory and build suspense, Martin Amis uses it in Time’s Arrow to highlight the horrors of the Holocaust, and to take a subversive look at human nature itself.

‘The Call’ by Yannick Murphy

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The Call is, on the surface, a corny celebration of family values, but its unique format makes it seem brand new. The novel is made up purely of statements and summaries (HE SAID: X; SHE DID: X), which allows for some pretty dry humor and moments of pure clarity. The book is more than its experimental form though; it contains themes of responsibility, guilt, and community that overshadow its unusual structure.

‘Hopscotch’ by Julio Cortázar

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Not having time to read is no longer an excuse; Hopscotch has whole chapters that you can simply choose to skip. The book can be read in any order, and tells a different story every time. This is the fictional equivalent of immersive theater: you’re in charge of your own adventure, but whichever way you turn, you know it’ll be pretty exciting.

‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ by David Markson

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Kate believes she is the last woman on Earth. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is made up of a series of her thoughts, that shift rapidly from topic to topic but keep coming back to the same topics. She is the only character in the novel, and she admits to sometimes making things up. Markson’s novel takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to its extreme, and the result is surprisingly philosophical.

‘JR’ by William Gaddis

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JR is made up almost entirely of dialogue with very little clue as to who is speaking. William Gaddis advised readers in an interview with The Paris Review to read the novel at normal talking speed, and not try too hard to work out who is saying what; he hoped this would allow them to participate, laugh out loud, and get swept along. This one is definitely a challenge to read, but it’s worth it.