S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – A Book Review

This is a book unlike anything else I have ever read.

There are two stories within this work.

One is surrealistic and focuses upon a freedom fighter known only as “S.”  He has amnesia, travels upon a mysterious ship full of anomalous sailors, and, through a series of events, battles an evil capitalist while yearning for a woman he does not know, but loves nonetheless.

The other story takes place within the margins of the first, and it is the written exchange in the form of annotations between a university student and an exiled graduate student.  The core of their dialogue occurs through written notes and centers upon the author of the above story, but, as fate would have it, their own lives seem in danger as a result of their investigation and this brings them together.  In order to understand their story, you must realize that they have different handwriting, identify their particular style, and comprehend that different colors of ink represent different time periods in their lives.  Because they apparently read and reread the book several times, you may see a note from them that was actually written near the end of their story.  Yes, it takes some getting used to.

The beautiful thing about this book, besides the notes in the margins, is that there are several artifacts within that correlate to the researchers’ conversations and research.  My favorite, for examples, is a map one of them drew upon a napkin.  There are also postcards, photographs, handwritten notes, even copies of newspaper articles.  In fact, the book itself is made to look like an old library book, complete with water stains and a checkout history.

The only negative thing I have to say is that I didn’t completely understand the stories of the book, which seems to necessitate another read on my part.  I chose to read each page and the margin notes all at once, and perhaps this was a misstep.  My reread will actually result in a third read, because I plan to read the story all the way through, and then go back and read the notes in the margins separately.  This should help distinguish the two tales from each other.  I jumped from one to the other on a page-by-page basis, and I believe this may have weakened my understanding of both.

That being said, S. is an important book because it challenges our notion of what constitutes a book.  In this digital age, print books must do more than they ever have before, and S. certainly seems to utilize a winning strategy.  By including multimedia artifacts that pertain to the book, the story becomes extremely interactive for the reader, making it all the more real.  Of course, the artifacts must seem genuine, which S. accomplishes, but I have to wonder if the average publisher could take on such an expensive venture.

In the end, I greatly enjoyed S., but I think I’ll enjoy it even more upon subsequent rereads.  There’s nothing wrong with revisiting a book, there’s no shame in needing to get closer to a book in order to fully understand it. There’s certainly nothing adverse about art demanding a little more, especially when it gives a little more.

 

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