Books are meant to be read, but I’m learning some of the more intriguing ones have you participate in ways that go beyond immersing yourself in a story.

These types of yarns invite you to get your hands dirty, to (gasp) deface your books until they look like the first draft of a high school essay. (Read also: stuff you shouldn’t do to library books.)

One book, a Christmas gift from a friend, crystallized this for me, even though I’ve previously been exposed to and interacted with similar books.

Cain’s Jawbone is a 100-page murder mystery referencing the Biblical story chronicling the first murder, per the introduction in my copy. Written in 1934 by Edward Powys Mathers (pen name Torquemada), it was part of a larger volume called The Torquemada Puzzle Book, which contained enough head-scratchers and brain teasers – the latter phrase always makes me think of an actual brain getting bullied in middle school – to “keep a family occupied for weeks.”

So what makes for the head scratching? Cain’s Jawbone is out of order. All the pages are mixed up, shuffled like a deck of cards. You and I are supposed to rearrange them properly. And before you ask, each page concludes with the end of a sentence, too, making it so we can’t link likely incomplete sentences up.

He’s thought of everything, this Mathers fellow.

There are dotted lines where the reader can cut the pages out. Not only do we have to rearrange the mystery, we’re invited to vandalize what it’s printed on. Think of a jigsaw puzzle that looks like a NyQuil-addled fever dream where you must disassemble the mess and reassemble it into its final, correct form.

“The number of possible combinations of pages is a figure that is 158 numbers long,” a Guardian article on Cain’s Jawbone by Andrew Anthony reads.

I ended 2023 with my first dive into the book, and I did it thinking I could just…open it. Start reading. Flip back and forth between pages and begin the metamorphosis in an organic, pleasant manner.


Five minutes into my debut session – in the Medford library employee break room – I was losing it. I asked another co-worker if she had heard of the book. She said she hadn’t but looked interested enough to where I gauged I could continue. I gave her the rundown, and she half-jokingly recommended the investigative method seen in many detective TV shows: a board with suspect mug shots, names, maps, and other documents, all bound in a web of red yarn.

She’s got a point. And that’s the point of books like this one and others I’ve interacted with. Reading is awesome, but reading and treating your book like it’s a crime scene or a scavenger hunt – when it’s merited – is legendary.

The friend who gifted me the book gave it to me because of another book in this interactive space. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of my favorite books I read in 2023, was simultaneously the most confounding thing I’ve ever read and one of the most soul-nourishing pieces of the written word I’ve ever experienced. It’s a true symphony of unreliable narrators, the tale of a man named Johnny Truant who sort of unwittingly inherits…I guess?…a trove of paranoid, rambling research and writing that another man named Zampano, now deceased, has compiled about a house and the nightmarish experiences a family who moved into it endured. The resulting book is Truant’s best effort at putting it back together and what he experiences in his own life along the way.

His best effort is still a – purposeful – mess. It’s a swamp of different fonts, footnotes, and mislaid pages. Sometimes, the reader has to turn the book upside down or sideways. Sometimes, there are footnotes within footnotes, forcing the reader to jump forward or backward dozens of pages. Sometimes, a whole page will contain just one or two words. There are entire  appendices, too, complete with illustrations and photo dioramas that remind me of the I Spy books. The package is manic, macabre, and often overwhelming. It’s a smashed mirror, and the reader needs to reassemble the fragments.

I learned that people go about this by vandalizing the heck out of their copies: highlighters, sticky notes, handwritten notes in the margins. All in. These efforts were their own versions of the yarn-bound detective board. That’s by choice – almost necessity, but still choice – though. With other books, such as “Cain’s Jawbone,” it’s basically required.

Either way, there’s an elegance to marking up your books (again: not the library ones.) When I first read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I borrowed my friend’s copy. He’d underlined several passages. While reading, it was fun to come across them, to see what bits had spoken to him or prompted him to slow down and absorb the ideas.

Such an act – be it a puzzle book, or confounding opus of a novel, or any written works that are a bit more demanding – makes something that’s had multiple copies printed and sold feel wholly unique, the only one like it in the world. Not necessarily our story but what we took away from it. How we made sense of it. What it meant to us. Our identity, imprinted on paper, scrawled in margins and highlighted passages and folded corners.

Extracted meaning as art.

For books that take a bit more brain power to decipher, check out this list of ergodic fiction in the JCLS catalog. You might want to bring a notebook and pen along for some of the selections.