Every novel ever written is, in a way, a unique expression of a unique mind. However, to crib from George Orwell, some books are more unique than others. With some novels—even bestsellers—you have to dig deep to find that spark of truly unique thought that makes it unlike every other novel out there. Even complex, incredible novels can be copied and mimicked, after all.
Sometimes, though, a novel comes along that is so unique in form or approach, it stands totally alone. These eight novels may not be the easiest reads out there, but they take the phrase “blow your mind” and make it as nearly literal as possible.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
This novel is about you reading this novel. And, generally, failing, because you keep getting interrupted by other novels. Sound confusing? Oh, it is—but it’s also a joyous celebration, in its way, of reading and adventure, of stumbling onto new stories. After an introduction addressing you directly, the actual novel begins, but owing to a printer’s error you only get the first signature, at which point you return to the bookstore, meet a woman, and select another book to read, only to have that one interrupted as well. If this sounds confusing, it is. If it also sounds amazing, it is.
Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar
This book is divided into 155 chapters, and Cortazar includes in the beginning a complex set of instructions detailing two approaches to reading the novel. The first is to read chapters 1–56 straight through, and then ignore the final 99 chapters as “expendable.” The second is to “hopscotch” through the book by jumping from chapter to chapter in what might seem random ways. Even more confusingly, the 99 “expendable” chapters are not expendable at all, but fill in crucial gaps in the timeline and details. It’s safe to say you will never read another book structured like this.
Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce
James Joyce is a famously challenging writer, but most of his other works, even Ulysses, can be enjoyed on a more or less superficial level simply because you can generally understand the words on the page, even if the larger meaning and structure elude you. Finnegans Wake’s first sentence is “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” And that may be the most easily understood sentence in the book. Ostensibly in English, it may be the most difficult novel ever written, and as such will always be 100% unique.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Hrabal Bohumil
A story about an old man who approaches some women on a beach and begins telling them stories from his life, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is unique for one singular achievement: the entire novel is rendered as a single sentence. Carry a copy to school or work with you, and when someone complains about a run-on sentence you can do your best Crocodile Dundee impression, tossing the book on their desk and saying, “You call that a run-on sentence? This is a run-on sentence.”
Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter
This book isn’t a novel. It also isn’t many other things. It’s possibly the most unique book ever written, a book about thinking, about how thought is possible and how thought works, as well as a book about how systems can be constructed from elements that have no intrinsic meaning and yet the systems themselves have meaning. And all of this is conveyed through a series of absorbing, enjoyable stories, thought experiments, puzzles, and other examples of pure creativity that will leave you riveted even if you you’re never 100% certain you’re following along.
The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
In visual mediums we have the slo-mo, a way of isolating a moment in time and exploring it. In fiction, we have The Mezzanine, the entirety of which takes place in the mind of an office worker as he returns from his lunch break and rides an escalator up one floor. One floor. The book is made up of his thoughts as he reflects back over his lunch—what he ate, the chores he accomplished, the book he was reading—and follows those thoughts backward and forward through the use of footnotes drilling down into the roots of his memories and the implications of his epiphanies. The most amazing aspect of this completely original novel is that it never once feels forced.
S., by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
This book is more like two books. It comes as a print copy of a novel, Ship of Theseus, by V.M. Straka, apparently borrowed from a library and never returned. In the margins of that book are notes written by Eric and Jen, two students seeking to solve the mystery of Straka’s identity and disappearance. Including other materials such as postcards and maps, this is a truly unique reading experience that tells two side-by-sides stories, at the very least.
The Familiar, by Mark Z. Danielewski
We could probably include just about any Danielewski work on this list, as the author has yet to write a straightforward novel. His latest work is unique in so many ways, however, it may shape up to be the most singular story ever written. Coming to us in 27 planned volumes (only 2 have been published so far), the novel incorporates different fonts for each character’s point of view, and a plethora of layout and typesetting tricks that often reflect the action—or some other, less obvious aspect of the story. Nothing like it has ever been published before.
So there you you—eight books that simply can’t be duplicated. What are the most unique books you’ve ever read?