ship of theseus (s.)

ship of theseus//wanderaven

S (Ship of Theseus) by Doug Dorst, J.J. Abrams, and V.M. Straka

More than twenty years ago, I loved the Griffin and Sabine series. I owned all the books and regularly re-read them for the pleasure of the envelopes and letters contained within.

So for me, it's impossible to experience a book like S. by J.J. Abrams (contained within is Ship of Theseus) without reminiscing about Griffin and Sabine. While that series will certainly always hold a bright spot in my readerly memories, the modern interpretation of an interactive book like that, S./Ship of Theseus is much more sophisticated and technically advanced. While the letters in Griffin and Sabine were a marvel for their time, if you found one just lying around somewhere, even back then, you would quickly be able to determine that it was from something like those books. The range of the printing and quality of the "authentic" letters was limited and easily spotted. Although some wear and tear to the ephemera contained within Ship of Theseus would even better serve the effect, if you found a letter from this book just lying on a sidewalk somewhere, you would very easily perceive it as being a real letter written from one person to another. The effect isn't complete, but it's damn close to being there.

If you haven't heard of this novel, it's not too surprising. If you have, it's probably due to the connection to J.J. Abrams. I've never watched Lost, though I might some day. And to be honest, his oeuvre just hasn't really been on my radar. Basically, I was vaguely aware of him. Which means that when I saw this book (contained within the slipcase of S.) at the bookstore, I bought it completely on impulse, unable to see what was inside the sealed slipcase, but sensing it was something special. I'm typically aware of books often for months before they are released. But had I not stumbled over this one in the bookstore and/or heard subsequent pieces on a couple of NPR programs about it, I'm not sure I would have ever known of it. It's an investment, and it's unlikely to be at your public library. The letters and postcards, yellowed obituary, and map sketched on a very authentic feeling cafe napkin, were difficult for me to contain while I was reading it; stocked in a library, this book would be stripped of its extras in very short order.

(photograph pulled from amazon)

Abrams didn't actually write the book. Abrams is said to have conceived of the idea when he saw a battered paperback novel sitting on a bench in an airport (pre-2001), and began developing the idea of such a book as a communication between two people. The actual writing and execution of the book was turned over to Doug Dorst. The presentation of this project is so very well done that it had to have been damn expensive to produce and I cannot help but speculate if it would have ever been completed had it not been connected to Abrams.

Ship of Theseus is a novel written by V.M. Straka in the early 20th century. S. is the marginalia within the book, the contemporary story of an exiled graduate student and an undergraduate using the book  to discuss with one another their theories about the mysterious Straka. They write back and forth to each other, and the reader can distinguish between the two characters by handwriting and then between the different times they wrote in the book by ink color and content.

I spent the majority of the book judging whether, if stripped of all the extra physical things, the contemporary story could hold up. For a long time, I thought it could but near the end, I'd definitely changed my mind. This isn't a bad thing; just that if you get ahold of an not-intact copy of the book, you would easily be deprived of some elements. I was also quick to have an early judgement that one or both of the story lines could be lacking due to the novelty of the presentation and also due to the potential desire to appeal to a wide audience.

My final judgement is mixed. Ship of Theseus held more meatiness than I expected (let's just say that if you were squeamish about the button eyes in Coraline, you'll have problems here, too). It was the storyline that actually better held my attention, which I hadn't expected. S. was also more layered (multiple theories and overlapping timelines) than I anticipated. Unfortunately, this element was an unexpected drawback for me. I'm not sure whether the months that it took me to complete this book (primarily due to other commitments, not the book itself) were detrimental to my reading of S., but I became confused and lost the threads about the different theories concerning Straka. If the code-breaker contained within the book was supposed to be utilized, I certainly never figured it out. I also felt that the danger the characters were supposed to be in fell utterly flat.

In rating the book on a five-star system, it's best broken down by its three parts:

Ship of Theseus: 4 stars

S.: 3 stars

Presentation of the physical whole: 5 stars

In all, I loved this experience. When I first brought the book home and my boyfriend saw it, he exclaimed that it reminded him so much of books he read growing up, of library books back in the 1970s (it even has a real dewey-decimal sticker on the spine, which grew progressively ragged as I dragged it around). Whenever he saw me reading it, he would notice the bits and pieces and ask, "Is this really from the book?" The effect is startling and sensual.