I’ve pretty much given up reviewing books here, preferring to do that on Goodreads. But this book is such a special case, I thought I would dump out my thoughts about it here.
This is what it looks like.
First of all, in the ubiquitous 5-star rating system, I would give this book three stars. Maybe 3.5 — mostly for a clever and intriguing package. It really does celebrate (and, some would say, desecrate) the book as physical object. The book, entitled Ship of Theseus, supposedly published in 1949, really does look like an old library book, complete with return dates stamped inside the back cover. (The latest date is from 2000, which suggests that good old Pollard State U is really behind the times, because rubber date stamps disappeared from college libraries long before the end of the last century. But never mind that). The grey buckram binding, the slightly discoloured paper, even a typewritten spine label — having worked in libraries for more than 30 years I found all that totally charming, especially a stamped note inside the back cover, exhorting the borrower to “Keep This Book Clean.”
That’s ironic, because of the marginal notes.
Reprehensible in a library book, some would say, although I believe that thoughtful marginal notes add value to a book. The thing about these voluminous notes is that they represent a second storyline, one more recent than that of Ship of Theseus, incorporating a good deal of debate about that book and its fictional author, V.M. Straka. (See how intriguing this sounds? Sucked me right in).
As I write this, I haven’t nearly finished the book. I’m only on page 28 of 456. So what am I doing writing a review? That’s just it — the very things that make this book such an attractive package also make it very difficult to read. The 22 inserts — loose pages of various sizes, a photograph, paper napkin with a map drawn on it, postcards and mysterious decoder wheel — are, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass. It’s impossible to keep them from falling out of the book or to keep them in order. Because of them, you really need to read this book at a table or desk, not on the couch or in bed, and certainly not on public transit or in the bathtub.
Then there’s the legibility issue. The all-important footnotes (because they contain clues as to the true identity of the mysterious Straka) are in a near-microscopic font. Add a magnifying glass to your reading equipment. The intriguing annotations become annoying in short order, especially the earliest lot, written in faint pencil by the disgraced grad student character. They are almost impossible to make out in the dim light of the bedside lamp. Add a good reading lamp, preferably one with a green glass shade such as those found in some library reading rooms.
What this book needs, in my opinion, is an electronic version along with the physical one. The purchaser could admire the physical features of the faked-up old book and all the extras, but in order actually to read it, they could go to the e-version and highlight either the text of Ship of Theseus or the marginal notes. Text enlargement would certainly help with the footnotes, and clickable icons would bring up images of the inserts. The reader could experience the book almost anywhere — bed and bus if not bath — while the physical version is way too awkward in any of those settings.
These issues aside, so far I haven’t had too much trouble following the two story lines, but it’s slow going. There is no way I’m going to finish this book by the time it’s due back at the library. Which is why I’m writing all this down while I still have it in hand.
Finally, I have to comment on that title — S. That’s it. How silly is that? “What are you reading these days?””S.” “What?” “S. That’s the title.” “Huh. Sounds dumb to me. So what’s it about?” I’m betting most people will end up calling it Ship of Theseus, or, as the two marginalists do, SOT.
This book, by the way, presented unique problems when it came to preparing it for library circulation. (I work in the department responsible for the library’s catalogue and preparation of materials). We put a good deal of work and creativity into devising a way to package all the loose inserts so they wouldn’t get lost. Sadly, we covered up the genuine-looking spine label with our own.
Addendum: by the time I had to return the book, I had read only to page 65 or so. Too bad, it was starting to get interesting. I might just revise my rating to 4 stars, if I ever get a chance to finish reading it.