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

The minute I saw S., at a party with friends shortly before the New Year, I knew that I needed to have it. And I promptly ordered it from the book store, only to have to wait patiently for nearly three months for my copy to arrive, because it was just that backordered. No wonder, too — it’s an absolutely incredible book both structurally and artistically, and it’s one of the most treasured items in my library now, firmly ensconced on the ‘do not loan, ever’ list and occupying a pride of place on the ‘handling permitted only by select people’ list, because it’s just that fragile and amazing and wonderful.

Describing S. is a bit complicated. Ostensibly, it’s a book called Ship of Theseus, written by an obscure author called V.M. Straka. A woman picks it up in a library and starts reading, but she quickly becomes embroiled in a conversation with the book’s owner, a Straka scholar. The conversation, however, takes place entirely in the form of notes left in the margins, with the characters writing back and forth to each other, sometimes adding inclusions like copies of photographs and old documents sandwiched between the pages, and creating an entire relationship without ever meeting each other.

Ship of Theseus itself is an intriguing, enigmatic, fascinating tale — but it’s the story that springs up around it that sucks you in. While I am the sort of person who abhors writing in books and normally faints dead away at the sight of underlining, margin notes, and other crimes against books, S. makes them an integral part of the storytelling; I still disapprove of such activities, but they were really artfully employed here.

As you read deeper and deeper into the text, you learn that the couple is embroiled in a dangerous, fascinating mystery, and the plot thickens all around them as they’re pursued (possibly) by members of a mysterious literary group, persecuted (definitely) by academic rivals, and forced to deal with personal problems in their own lives. They come together on the page as friends, allies, and eventually something deeper, eventually deciding to meet, at which point the book becomes a tantalising glimpse into not just the conversation on the page, but also what’s happening off the page.

It’s a slow, rich, dense read. S. took me a while to finish not because I was getting bored or frustrated with the text (a common cause of slow reading for me), but because I wanted to savour it, and because there was so much going on that I was forced to take it slowly in order to digest it all. Sometimes I’d read just ten or twenty pages in an evening, and that was enough, although towards the end, I found myself reading more, because I was so anxious to find out what happened next; to both S in Ship of Theseus and our characters in the margins. It was a delicious sort of book to read, the kind that you want to linger and take your time over, and I often found myself going back to re-read sections, or dawdling over a particularly good part.

Like Hopscotchanother book I deeply love, you can read S. in numerous different ways. You could focus on just reading Ship of Theseus straight through. You could follow the margin notes by color to read each pass of conversation, going deeper and deeper by layer like an archaeologist. Or you could read the book precisely as presented, skipping around on each page between margin notes and the actual text of Ship of Theseus and the occasional inserts. No matter how you read it, there’s always more to come back to, and the story gets deeper and more complex every time you look at it, the hallmark of brilliant writing, craft, and structure.

This isn’t just a book that’s structurally fascinating, though: it’s also beautiful. The production quality is absolutely incredible, and if you’re balking at the price, don’t, because it’s totally worth it. We’re talking full-colour presentation on every page, but it’s not just that. It’s the delicate writing in the margins. It’s the artfully composed stains and marks of wear and time. It’s the precise, artful nature of every single thing you’ll find inside the book, from the bits and pieces of a code to the occasional smears where someone wrote and closed the page too quickly. It’s this that drew me to the book at first glance, because it was more than just a gimmicky thing a la Griffin and SabineI love artful things that are done well, and S. is done very, very well.

Thankfully for those of us who fear losing the inserts, S. also comes with a nice lovely slipcase, ensuring that everything stays where it is supposed to go. Every time I slide my copy out, I feel like I’m about to enter a tingling, delightful world, because I never know what I’m going to find; at times, I could swear that the marginalia have moved or changed, that an S has appeared where it wasn’t before, that a new insert is definitely there because I don’t remember seeing it before. That, I think, is the mark of a truly excellent project, because the ability to continually surprise old readers isn’t something that every book possesses.