S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst9780316201643

publication date: 2013
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-0-316-20164-3

This book was a lot of fun. The physical book that the reader actually held in their hands was a first edition of the 1949 book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Within that Straka book, were notes in the margins, written by Jen, a college student, and Eric, a graduate student seeking his Ph.D. on Straka and his works. There were also several related papers stuck in the Straka book, like a copy of a telegram sent by Straka in 1924 and a postcard sent from Eric to Jen in 2012. All these different layers of narratives made for an intriguing book. There was also a lot of mystery within the Ship of Theseus story written by Straka, and surrounding Straka’s identity and death, and around Jen and Eric’s relationship and work.

The different narratives within the book gave me a choice as to how I could read it. I thought the best way I would be able to judge the Ship of Theseus text and the Jen and Eric annotations was to read each story separately. So I read Ship of Theseus and it’s footnotes first, without looking at Eric and Jen’s notes or the material stuck in the book. Then, after I read to the end of the text, I read the later notes and material.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst obviously spent time creating this book, and the effort paid off. The different voices of Eric, Jen, Straka, Straka’s editor, and other characters were all varied and interesting. There were several clues and codes within the book that the reader could investigate and untangle. Also, the added material within the book, like letters, photos, and newspaper clippings was all detailed and well-done. Probably the most exciting part in the book for me was when I turned a page to find a hand-written map drafted on a napkin. As I was unfolding the map, I felt like I really was going on an adventure.

I was impressed by the distinctiveness of the different character voices. For example, here was a passage from Ship of Theseus about its main character, S:

It’s not so much the killing that exhausts S. as it is the planning and rowing and trusting and traveling and stalking and killing and escaping and rowing and sewing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and planning and rowing and trusting, all the while knowing that Vévoda is hunting him, too. . . .

And here’s a typical passage in the margins between Eric and Jen:

[Eric]: Sometimes I wonder: how much of this am I doing just to get back @ Moody? And Ilsa, too?
[Jen]: You’re doing exactly what you would have been doing. You’re just a little more intense about it.
[Eric]: Apparently I’m allowing you to make rash decisions (which admittedly, benefit me indirectly).
[Jen]: You’re not “allowing” me to do anything.

Although I enjoyed the book, parts of it could be annoying. For example, it’s very nature made it self-indulgent. Doug Dorst was able to write a book and then write notes in the margins commenting on how interesting and well-written the book was. Also, the Ship of Theseus narrative was sometimes excessively stylized.

Overall, it was a fun, intriguing book that left several mysteries unsolved for those readers who want to solve puzzles on their own.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Guardian
Hypable
The Telegraph

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