This is another situation where I must begin with deepest apologies for taking so long. But I’m not going to dwell on my inability to be a productive member of reviewing society. Instead, I’m going to start this off right: if you don’t read S., you do not like books. If you don’t like S., you are crazy.
In case you can’t tell, I loved this book. Conceived by the unbelievably talented J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, it is so incredible that I can’t stop to figure out how I’m going to use words to explain how good it is. Here’s the best thing I can think to say: S. is a toy for bibliophiles. It is an extraordinary, beautiful, perfect love letter to the written word. It is the best book you can possibly read this year because you don’t just read it, you live it.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Isn’t that pretty high praise? And not everyone will like it, right?”
And I’ll repeat: if you don’t like S., you are crazy.
So before I get going on why you should read/love/cherish this book, let me give you the basic summary rundown (and I’ll try not to make it sound just like the official blurb).
Once upon a time, there was a mysterious writer named Straka. He wrote lots of books. But there’s this one particular book, Ship of Theseus. And that’s the book you’re going to be reading. It’s about a man who doesn’t know who he is (was) or what he’s doing, but he gets wrapped up in a wild political rebellion while he searches for love and things get really complicated and (for you academics out there) philosophical/literary. But it’s not just Straka’s novel you’re reading, because the marginalia is another complete story. Two young people are reading SoT – a disgraced graduate student who’s loved the book for years and a young undergraduate who works in the library. Their notes back and forth to each other verbalize their reactions to the novel and the ongoing mystery of the true identity of Straka (the graduate student’s unceasing quest). What begins as an innocent series of passed notes becomes a chronicle not only of the readers’ relationship, but also of the thrilling hunt for Straka.
Not sold on this? Okay, let me get into what makes it awesome.
First off, the most pleasant surprise in this novel was Ship of Theseus itself. From the first page, I knew that I would love, love, love the margin story – obviously, having a male and female reader, you expect romance (which you get, thank goodness) – but I was concerned about the Straka novel holding it all together. And then, after about page five, I fell in love with it.
What makes SoT special is that, especially for fellow English majors (or lovers of literary analysis), it’s bursting with symbolism and themes and possibilities for interpretation. Like, I felt like I needed a notebook and a set of post-its and a pencil to make my comments. But, of course, I reminded myself that I’m reading this for pleasure, not school. Even though it feels like school reading, but in a good way, not a “Read all of Paradise Lost and try to find something meaningful in it other than the message of don’t go to Hell” kind of way.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful novel in and of itself. And then you get the marginalia.
And that story just explodes with wonderful-ness. Obviously (because I’m me), I fell utterly, completely, and totally in love with the grad student. He’s snarky and sarcastic and brilliant. And you can totally hear his academic little voice (which is similar to the voice I hear when I read anything by Northrop Frye) as you read his notes. The undergrad student, meanwhile, is hilarious because she gets so caught up in the Straka situation that she kind of forgets that she needs to go to classes so she can pass and graduate.
Both of our readers (and storytellers) are going through big life changes – collapsing relationships, family discord, moving forward with their education – and the way it’s presented to us is real. Their notes are like what you’d pass to your friend in class. Sometimes they’re long explanations of what’s going on in their lives. Other times it’s snappy comments about each other. But always it’s a beautiful friendship.
The complication of S. is actually a rather serious situation: how do you read it? My first attempt was to read a chapter by reading the novel, footnotes, and margin notes all at once. Don’t do that. It is silly and doesn’t really work for the rest of the chapters. So here’s what my good theory became: read a chapter of Straka. Digest that chapter. Go back to the beginning. Read the notes. Read footnotes first, then read the notes in order of their color coding.
TANGENT TIME: This is one of the coolest things about the marginalia. It’s color coded. So, for example, the pencil notes are the oldest, then the blue and black, and on and on (but you figure it out as you read because you can totally tell where they are in their relationship). So you get into a pattern of how to read it all. And it’s awesome.
Once I figured out how to read it (well, what worked for me, at least), everything was a lot easier. I’m not saying it was, like, totally impossible to read the way I started, but if you go chapter by chapter in several layers, it’s a lot easier to understand. And yes, it requires two (or more) bookmarks, but dude, totally worth it.
Oooh, and did I mention that the book has lots of cool doodads and notes in it? Postcards and photos and, my personal favorite, a napkin from the cafe the readers use with a map drawn on it. If nothing else, you’ve got to love this book because of the details in all of its pieces. Like the newspaper that you’re supposed to read for one article, but you can read a few other pieces that are also printed there and it’s actually pretty awesome.
I wonder how many times I’ve used the words “awesome” and “beautiful.” A lot. Obviously.
And here’s one of my last comments: the title. Of both books. S. (when you’re reading the Straka novel) totally makes sense and is perfect. And SoT as Straka’s title I thought was pretty cool, but then I looked it up in Google to see if I missed something. And boy, did I ever.
The “Ship of Theseus” Paradox: The ship which bore Theseus was preserved and, as parts of it needed repair, it was rebuilt plank by plank. But if every plank is replaced, is it still the ship of Theseus? As Wikipedia puts it, it is “a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.”
So on it’s own, this is a crazy paradox to consider. Because, is it the same? I don’t know. But then you read Straka’s novel (not even looking at the margins) and here’s my reaction: WHAT?!?!?!?
It’s the most perfect title ever for this book that (before S.) didn’t even exist. Seriously, read the book, read about this paradox, and then tell me it’s not EXACTLY perfect.
That’s another word I’m using a lot: “perfect.”
Because, very seriously, this is one of the most perfect books I’ve read in a long time. It’s funny and thrilling and terrifying and clever and magnificent. And honestly, yes, I got the book because I judged it by its cover and thought it was pretty cool that it came with stuff in it. But I am recommending this book to everyone because, if you like books, you’ll like this.
Now, I hear (a rumor) that there’s an ebook version and an audiobook version. Don’t do it. You’ll lose all the magic. I mean it. Go out, get the physical, beautiful, wonderful book, and cherish it. Open the sticker that holds the book in its slipcase. Run your finger over the spine label. Feel the texture of the pages. Smell the book. Trace the awesomely retro design on the cover. Pull out the postcards and read them. Look at the back inside cover and appreciate the library due date stamps.
Enjoy your experience with this very tangible love letter to books, and the power they have to connect us all.
Because above all else in this masterpiece, it’s about the experience you have. We none of us will come away with the same experience, but that’s part of the joy, not only of reading, but of living. And I only hope that you enjoy S. as much as I did.