A Good Concept, But– : S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

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.

S., or Ship of Theseus

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.

S. 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.

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15 comments

  1. Hmm- you have me intrigued. Might have to add this one to the list (which keeps growing this weekend- so many people writing about such interesting books!), although it would obviously have to be an in-the-house book- NOT for commuting on the TTC!

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    1. Despite my annoyance, I was sorry to let this book go. It had a combination of mystery and academic atmosphere, with romance lurking around the edges that was intriguing. And it would work better as a book one owns rather than borrows from a library. (Maybe the creators figured this out as a selling point).

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      1. Curiosity is suitably piqued. Back to the bookstore I shall go! The underlying classical paradox and your description are making it impossible to resist. You know I love a good story… Thanks Audrey!

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  2. Finished the book this week- I think it was worth the journey. Interesting format and way of playing with narrative and allegory- and I do like the fact that it’s a book that cannot become e-formatted. The inserts and the ‘old library book’ feel are tangible parts of the adventure.
    Still need a little ruminating to decide whether it was the novelty or the story that I enjoyed- but it was a good skit, regardless. Thanks for the prompt!

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    1. Wow, you’ve read it. Now I’m thinking I’ll have to give it another try. And yes, they did the old library book thing very well. I seem to recall the young woman character saying in one of her marginal notes that she was such a good researcher because one of her favourite courses in college was library science. As a librarian myself, I felt that was a point in the book’s favour.

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      1. Yes- her connection to the library and books were important aspects of the novel. It’s both a criticism of literary criticism/English Literature departments at universities and a celebration of the fact that a book is so very much more than ‘just’ the story it seems to contain. I think that’s what stayed with me the most. Thanks again, Audrey!

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    1. It certainly is a different concept in book production, possibly because one of its creators is a film director. And as I said in the post, it doesn’t work very well as a library book (although we packaged it up quite well).

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  3. I would like to comment that the “book” “Ship of Theseus” was actually the personal (albeit stolen) property of the male reader, and had come from a High School library in California.

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    1. Yes, I seem to remember some sort of indication of ownership inside the front cover, and thinking it was an unlikely book for a high school library. Of course, I haven’t actually read the book (either “S.” or Ship of Theseus). I was involved with cataloguing it and preparing it for circulation in a public library. The blog post is about the book as a physical object and the issues it presented for use in a library situation. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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