Book Notes: S, by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

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This fascinating book (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is one of the oddest printed objects I’ve ever seen. It’s a novel; it’s an enigma; it’s a treasure hunt; it’s a non-linear story. Written by Doug Dorst, apparently from an idea by J. J. Abrams (the creator of Lost and Alias, the director of Star Trek and soon Star Wars movies), it is a multi-layered immersive reading experience. And there’s a story in there somewhere.

41-oATFYEQL.jpgFirst, when you open the book, you see how strange it is. It comes sealed in a slipcase, with the title Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. It is purported to be translated and presented by the mysterious F. X. Caldeira. But this novel is only part of the story; what emerges is an intriguing mystery as two readers, Jen and Eric, hunt down the author and translator, conversing through notes written in the margins of the pages, and through some two dozen disparate papers inserted in the book. These include notes, post cards, napkins, letters and more.

I read the first chapter last night. It’s not an easy read; it makes me think of books by Thomas Pynchon, but it’s more confusing because of the notes in the margins. (You have to have some suspension of disbelief, that these two people could have written hundreds of notes, each visiting the library where the book is held to add a comment. At the rate of a few notes a day, it would take a year or more to write all the notes.) Jen is a student and Eric is researching the mysterious author. They write their ideas and converse over time, glossing parts of the novel, and just chatting, as though by instant message in the book’s margins. (No respect for books, these two, writing all over them…)

You quickly realize that you need a strategy to read this book. First, the different papers stuck between the pages most likely need to be read at specific locations. So I took them all out, and put post-its on them with the page numbers where they are found. Next, it’s hard to read the text of the novel and the notes at the same time. So I decided to read an entire chapter of the text, then go back to the notes. You could also read the entire novel, then read the notes, which might give you more story, but I have a feeling that what will transpire in the notes will help make sense of the novel itself as it goes on.

This book reminds me of the computer game Myst, where you land on an island and have no idea what you are to do. There are no instructions, just a strange book and an even stranger conversation in the margins. But this non-linear type of story is closer to life than fiction is. When you read a book, you don’t read it all the way through: you live your life in between reading sessions, and you may discuss the book you’re reading with friends.

S is an intriguing book. I hope it lives up to the promise of what the first chapter offers.