I’m normally a big proponent of ebooks but there are just some books that work better on paper. S. is definitely one of them. This collaboration of J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst physically consists of two stories: one as the normal body of the book and another in its margins:
- “Ship of Thesus” is a work of the fictional author V.M. Straka which tells the story of “S.", a man who has lost his memory and wakes up in an old harbour town just in time to get kidnapped and put onto an old ship. What follows is a trip through the late 19th and early 20th century including mystery, bombings, assassinations and all the other fun topics of the time.
- The second one is a story that is told in the margins of the book’s pages where two students in the present get to know each other through small text messages while exploring the backstory of the book and trying to learn the true identity of the mysterious V.M. Straka.
The second part not only consists of those margin notes but also of lots of little snippets and documents tucked in between pages (like a napkin with a map on it or a paper compass). The amount of planning and work that must have been put into these details is just amazing! This and the whole idea in general, to have basically the meta story right in the book itself, make this book a great collectible that I will probably show off frequently 😅
At first I thought I could read both at the same time but eventually opted to read the first story first in order to get properly into the flow 🙂 The marginalia is written is written in multiple passes so you see how they learnt more about the characters over time.
Let’s get into some of the details on both stories now. I will only try to spoil the first couple of pages, so it should be safe for you to read on.
Ship of Theseus
Ship of Theseus tells the story of a man who woke up in a port city without any kind of memory about himself. He wandered into a bar and after talking with a young woman named “Sola” was kidnapped (or “shanghaied” as it is called in the book) onto a xebec-class sailing ship (a class, according to Wikipedia, that was used primarily during the 18th and early 19th century). While he was not held as a prisoner he didn’t feel like a guest either. Especially so after he noticed that of the 19 sailors with him on the ship, 18 had their mouth sewn shut.
Luckily, during a big storm, S. (as seems to be his name) was able to escape and swim ashore another port city called B. in which there was a worker revolt going on at the time. Weirdly enough, what were merely weeks to him seem to have been years on the land and so his mysterious quest to find out who he is, who Sola is, and what was going on here anyway begins.
IMO that story itself is interesting enough that even if the book did not contain that other story in its margins, it would be worth it. Throughout even “Ship of Theseus” the margins of books and papers mentioned in the plot play an important role, though, so there also in the “real world” being another story hidden in the margins of this book make it that more special!
So let’s get into what’s going on in the margins. Here, two students (Jen and Eric) explore the book and other sources of information in order solve the mystery of who V.M. Straka (VMS for short), the author of “Ship of Theseus”, actually was. This plot line takes place somewhere around 2012 at the fictional Pollard State University where both use the library as dead-drop for the book and their communications within it.
Actually, only Jen is the student here has Eric has been expunged and disgraced by his former teacher “Moody” due to their competing work on finding out the truth behind VMS. The whole story is a big hide and seek and quite entertaining. It also contributes quite a bit to the complexity of the main story. I started to see patterns that I normally would have overlooked. In that sense, the margins act like a big online message board where rumours and findings are shared, but offline and prepare by the authors themselves.
… both stories are just great. Personally, I preferred “Ship of Theseus” but the margins made it even more interesting. But even if (and that’s a big IF) you don’t fall in love with any of that, the book is just an awesome collectible. IMO a must-have for anyone who likes books.