Books with unique structures
June 7, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Can anybody recommend great books that have unique formats, such as Flatland, Sum, The Gay Science, and The Devil's Dictionary?

These are some of my favorite books, and I want to see what else is out there. What these books have in common is that I can barely think of any other books structured the same way they are. Flatland, for example is a story about abstract shapes, that somehow works. Sum, is forty vignettes starting with some idea of the afterlife, and then taken to their logical extremes. The Gay Science is a series of short verses about philosophy. And The Devil's Dictionary simply has satirical definitions for a bunch of words.

Other books that I would lump in here are The Onion's Our Dumb Century, The Onion's Our Dumb World, Understanding Comics, and Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus.

So the idea is, come up with books that are both great and have a unique format.
posted by philosophistry to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 110 users marked this as a favorite
How about The Daily Show/Jon Stewart's America: The Book?
posted by brainmouse at 2:52 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Dictionary of the Khazars presents three incompatible perspectives on a historical event as a series of encyclopedia articles organized alphabetically and by source, rather than chronologically.
posted by murphy slaw at 3:04 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:07 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

The amazing House Of Leaves is ergodic literature, which although isn't quite what you're talking about, might intrigue you anyway.
posted by Specklet at 3:08 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

253 by Geoff Ryman, concerns passengers on a train who have connections between them. Also a website.

You could try Roger's Profanisaurus: the Magna Farta.
posted by biffa at 3:10 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine takes place during one escalator ride.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:12 PM on June 7, 2011

Cloud Atlas!

Also, not exactly written with a unique structure, but possessing a very unique twist that changes the rest of the book, The Gone-Away War.
posted by odayoday at 3:13 PM on June 7, 2011

Anatomy of Melancholy, a whole library in a book, with a very opinionated librarian.

The Annotated Alice is a footnoted Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but so thorough and deep it becomes an entirely new book in itself.

Will Eisner's New York, graphic vignettes from the big city, now compiled into a bigger book of all kinds of experiments in capturing a specific place. It includes Invisible People, so I have to re-mention Calvino's Invisible Cities, the favorite book of lovers of lists.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:16 PM on June 7, 2011

Definitely Godel, Escher, Bach. Between the Socratic-dialogue sections, the playful prose style, and the way working through the examples influences one's experience of the book, I've never seen another quite like it.
posted by vorfeed at 3:23 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Einstein's Dreams is similar to both Sum and Invisible Cities.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:24 PM on June 7, 2011

Structured somewhat like Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus is Wittgenstein's Mistress.

Seconding If On a Winter's Night a Traveler and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 3:24 PM on June 7, 2011

B.S. Johnson's novel The Unfortunates consists of 27 unbound chapters in a box. The first and last chapters are specified but the other 25 can be read in any order.
posted by verstegan at 3:25 PM on June 7, 2011

Nabokov's Pale Fire is a novel written as a scholarly edition of a 999-line poem. The introduction by the editor, the poem itself, and the voluminous footnotes tell the story of the relationship between the editor and the writer, which tome is creepier than Lolita.
posted by mammary16 at 3:27 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Pretty open-ended question.... Here are some that come to mind.

The Dictionary of the Khazars is a hypertext/dictionary novel published in two "genders" that differed only very slightly in content. It's not strictly dictionary format, as many entries become quite narrative and take many pages.

A Pattern Language is often cited as one of the earlier hypertext books (1977) and blew a lot of people's minds with the way it was put together back in the day.

Ecotopia is Utopian fiction structured as a series of newspaper columns and diary entries from a reporter visiting the post-secession country formed by northern California, Oregon and Washington.

Children's illustrator Chris Van Allsburg does a ton of neat books with twisty plots and very few words. Jumanji, Polar Express, Bad Day at Riverbend....

And another illustrator: David Macaulay did a neat thing with Rome Antics, which followed a pigeon around the streets of Rome. Many of his books are creatively structured.
posted by richyoung at 3:27 PM on June 7, 2011

Always I forget one.. A Humument, a book unearthed within a book.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:31 PM on June 7, 2011

Anne Carson's recent Nox is a long, accordion-folded page in a box.

A lot of the McSweeneys quarterlies play with format: No. 17, for instance, is presented as a bundle of mail.
posted by holgate at 3:50 PM on June 7, 2011

Perhaps Ella Minnow Pea?

In the story, various letters become banned from use, until finally the narrator is left with very few to use. It's an epistolary novel at heart, though, so it might be a bit too ordinary in that regard.
posted by pecanpies at 3:58 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

The above-mentioned Nox also is formatted largely as a Latin-English dictionary.

I'd recommend What I Have Written by John A. Scott. It starts out as erotica and then suddenly becomes something entirely different.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 3:59 PM on June 7, 2011

  • Mrs. Bridge is a series of vignettes of the life of a middle-class woman in the mid 20th century.
  • Mr. Bridge is about Mrs. Bridge's husband in the same format.
  • Einstein's Dreams is a book of different thought experiments/stories of how time could be perceived.
  • Douglas Adams' Meaning of Liff and Deeper Meaning of Liff are short dictionaries that give words to the common experiences, feelings, and situations we all share but never had a word for.
I also second richyoung's suggestion for A Pattern Language. It's a brilliant book that I'm slowly making my way through.
posted by thebestsophist at 4:00 PM on June 7, 2011

Also, Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish. In the first chapter, he uses only words that begin with A. In the second, he uses words that start with A or B. And so on.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 4:01 PM on June 7, 2011

Also, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Not a novel, but a short story by Jorge Luis Borges in the style of literary criticism.
posted by pecanpies at 4:03 PM on June 7, 2011

The Griffin and Sabine books immediately came to mind.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:03 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nicholson Baker's Vox has nothing but dialogue. Also seconding his The Mezzanine, Ella Minnow Pea, and Griffin and Sabine.
posted by knile at 4:04 PM on June 7, 2011

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish.

"The writing is restricted by an interesting pseudo-alliterative rule: the first chapter contains only words starting with the letter a, the second chapter only words starting with a or b, etc.; each subsequent chapter adds the next letter in the alphabet to the set of allowed word beginnings. This continues for the first 25 chapters, until at last Abish is (briefly) allowed to write without constraint.

In the second half of the book, through chapter 52, letters are removed in the reverse order that they were added. Thus, z words disappear in chapter 28, y in chapter 29, etc..."

You also might enjoy epistolary novels such as Sorcery and Cecilia, Frankenstein, Dracula, Carrie, The Screwtape Letters, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, and especially the fabulous and beautiful Griffin and Sabine.
posted by bq at 4:05 PM on June 7, 2011

David Grossman, See Under: Love (structured in encyclopedia format, with a lot of cross-referencing; you can read it straight or follow the cross-refs)

Roberto Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas (another "reference" work)

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (prose "reconstruction" of alternative Odysseys)

For a lighter version of this, John Dickson Carr, The Nine Wrong Answers (which regularly breaks the narrative frame to inform you that "if you think such and such happened, you're wrong")

And to go way back in time, Sarah Fielding's and Jane Collier's The Cry: A Dramatic Fable (1754) (possibly influenced by the Decameron, but with responses from a collective voice known only as the Cry)
posted by thomas j wise at 4:30 PM on June 7, 2011

A book that was big in the 80s: The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth. To quote Wikipedia:
The work is a novel in verse composed of 590 Onegin stanzas (sonnets written in iambic tetrameter, with the rhyme scheme following the unusual ababccddeffegg pattern of Eugene Onegin) ... Set in the 1980s, The Golden Gate follows the lives of a group of yuppies in San Francisco.
I guess there's also "Surreal Numbers: How Two Ex-Students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness", described as "a mathematical novelette. Maybe that's too much like "Flatland", but it is notable for being "one of the rare cases where a new mathematical idea was first presented in a work of fiction."
posted by benito.strauss at 4:36 PM on June 7, 2011

Oracle Night by Paul Auster--very multilayered and hard to describe without spoiling it, but highly recommended.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis--if you're looking for an unusual story structure, this should fit the bill. The less you know about it before you start, the better.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon--narrated by a young boy with autism, frequently illustrated with images from his memory or imagination, e.g. math and geometry problems, signs and symbols, pictures his therapist has drawn for him.

Happenstance by Carol Shields--story of a marriage, with one half told by the husband and one half by the wife. The edition I read featured the two halves printed upside down from each other, so there was no way to tell which side was supposed to be read first--you'd get to the middle, and the story would end, and then you had to flip the book over and read it the other way until you got to the middle again.

And seconding odayoday's recommendation for Cloud Atlas.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:56 PM on June 7, 2011

Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch.

Julio Cortazar, A Manual for Manuel.

Jacques Derrida, The Post Card.

Jacques Derrida, Glas.

Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida/Derridabase

Several David Markson books, such as Wittgenstein's mistress, This Is Not A Novel, Readers Block, The Last Novel.

Several books by Julian Rios (very Joycean and playful)

Several Evan S Connell books not mentioned above, such as Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose.
posted by jayder at 5:20 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Codex Seriphinianus
posted by SueDenim at 6:08 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton is a love story in the format of an auction catalog.

National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook may not be exactly what you are looking for. It it formatted as, well, a high school yearbook. It is great.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:24 PM on June 7, 2011

The Dictionary of the Khazars is a hypertext/dictionary novel published in two "genders" that differed only very slightly in content

In the paperback edition I have, it is 335 pages. The back cover blurb saith they are identical "save for seventeen crucial lines."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:35 PM on June 7, 2011

You definitely want Cloud Atlas.

Godel Escher Bach seems to fit as well.
posted by milestogo at 7:01 PM on June 7, 2011

Seconding Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose from Evan S Connell. They're both half-way between a poem and an essay, and he has a way of grabbing hold of your mind, like some ancient mariner.

As a plus, they're published by North Point Press, who make a really nice book. (Or were published? They may have folded.)
posted by benito.strauss at 7:08 PM on June 7, 2011

Lots of good stuff in here already.

Generation X is unusual (perhaps not unique) in being a work of fiction with explanatory sidebars and illustrations.

And of course, Infinite Jest is unusual for for fiction in having footnotes, endnotes, footnotes with endnotes, and endnotes with footnotes.
posted by adamrice at 7:16 PM on June 7, 2011

Very enthusiastically nthing Griffin & Sabine and Codex Seriphinianus. I love those books to death and I think they'll work quite well for you.

A lot of other good stuff has already been mentioned, but I might add Lanark to the list--a bildungsroman following the life of an ordinary (but remarkably eccentric) middle class Glaswegian man, structured in four books with the third coming first in the form of a surreal fantasy, the first and second being sandwiched in the middle as realist literature and a fourth that concludes the volume with sharply satirical science fiction. The way the story moves effortlessly (and somewhat confusedly) through different genres and literary realities without skipping a beat makes for an interesting read.
posted by byanyothername at 7:51 PM on June 7, 2011

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diane Wynn Jones is a tour guide/dictionary humorously defining fantasy cliches.
posted by anaelith at 8:05 PM on June 7, 2011

Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas. A bigger laugh fest than Madame Bovary!
posted by dragonplayer at 8:16 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem. (Sorry, at work adn can't link.) A collection of reviews of imaginary works of literature.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:18 PM on June 7, 2011

Seconding Oulipo works, Calvino & Dictionary of the Khazars.

It may or may not be what you're after, but try something by Harry Mathews, like The Conversions. Each chapter is in the format of a different kind of puzzle, that you have to work out as you go:

"Songs seem to carry hidden messages. Horse pedigrees are given in exhaustive detail. A man writes and speaks backwards - two languages, in effect, for one reverses sounds, the other letter. Old manuscripts hide clues in the red letters at the beginning of each line - if you only know what to add and where to divide. Authors and titles of books seized at customs, nine civil servants each of whom distorts language more strongly than the predecessor."
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:27 PM on June 7, 2011

Previously on MeFi and an article I wrote in response
posted by 0bvious at 1:45 AM on June 8, 2011

A neat book that came out a few months ago is The Lover's Dictionary, by David Levithan. It's a series of very short musings on love and relationships, done in dictionary form. Really surprisingly moving and funny, highly recommended.
posted by goateebird at 4:03 AM on June 8, 2011

"Only Revolutions" (by the author of the aforementioned House of Leaves) is designed so that you're supposed to read 8 pages, turn it upside down and read the next 8, then turn it upside down again, and so on ...
posted by jbickers at 4:48 AM on June 8, 2011

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian alternates perspectives between odd and even chapters, and even the style changes between chapters.
posted by sillygwailo at 7:06 AM on June 8, 2011

I rushed here hoping I'd be the first to say Cloud Atlas. Oh well.
posted by cacofonie at 9:53 AM on June 8, 2011

The Staggering Work of a Heartbreaking Genius by Dave Eggers is a traditional novel/memoir with some strange meta things that happen including diagrams, characters that talk about their role in the story, and what an interview for a position on MTV's the Real World would have been like, you know, if it did happen.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis "The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior "tempter" named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as "the Patient"."
posted by jander03 at 11:58 AM on June 8, 2011

The Book of Beginnings and Endings and The Body by Jenny Boully.
Reader's Block etc. by David Markson
AVA by Carole Maso
The (Diblos) Notebook by James Merrill
Anything Oulipian (as has been mentioned above) but perhaps especially Harry Mathews's work.
The Transitive Vampire or The Red Shoes by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Novels in Three Lines by Felix Fénéon

If you're interested in finding even more of this sort of thing (whatever that means!), Dalkey Archive Press publishes a lot of it. Keep an eye out for their books when you're in bookstores and you'll often find pleasant surprises.
posted by dizziest at 1:52 PM on June 8, 2011

A couple more occurred to me --

Irvine Welsh, The Acid House (stories) and the Marabou Stork Nightmares (novel) -- these have somewhat unique style/page layout (maybe all his books do, but these are the only ones I've read).

Claude Simon, The Jardin des Plantes
posted by jayder at 6:23 AM on June 9, 2011

Iain M Banks Use of Weapons has alternative chapters telling the beginning and of a story, one going forward in time (the chapters numbered in words) the other going backwards (numbered in Roman Numerals) so that they meet in the middle of the story at the end of the book. There's also a prolog and epilogue that take place after the events of the rest of the book/

Iain Banks' The Bridge has a chapter structure that was written to resemble the actual physical structure of the Forth Rail Bridge which features heavily in the novel
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:42 AM on June 9, 2011

Gould's Book of Fish
posted by lalochezia at 8:48 AM on June 9, 2011

The Selected Works of T S Spivet contains a lot of hand-drawn maps, graphs, and charts from the titular character.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:21 PM on June 9, 2011

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2011

J.G. Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition has the short story Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, written as a rambling medical article on paraphilia.
posted by benzenedream at 11:38 PM on June 10, 2011

Sister Light, Sister Dark presents the same story in multiple ways (the myth, the history, the ballad, the story, etc.). I always found the differences fascinating.
posted by timepiece at 6:13 PM on June 13, 2011

I can't believe no one has mentioned The Invention of Hugo Cabret. A kid's book told partially in words, partially in pictures. Really good
posted by TheShadowKnows at 8:59 PM on June 13, 2011

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