Monday, 20 January 2014

Recommended Read: S.

My brother, Harvey, gave me 'S.' by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst for Christmas. I knew that he'd been really excited about the book he was currently reading, and had bought me the same one, but I wasn't expecting such an exciting and unusual reading experience.

'S.' is physically beautiful. It comes in a black box with a seal that you have to cut to get to the book itself. The book inside is the real treat; a perfectly aged replica library book awaits you. The pages have been yellowed and, I have no idea how they did this, it even smells like an old book. The spine is sewn (a proper book!) and there is even a library sticker and stamps showing when the book has been borrowed inside.

Not only that, but tucked between the pages (which is why the book needs its case) are various postcards, photographs and hand written letters that enhance the story. There is even a map drawn onto an actual napkin! The cost of producing this book must have been incredible! I can't believe how reasonable it is to buy though.

The book inside the 'S.' case is called 'The Ship of Theseus' and has been written by the fictional author  V. M. Straka. We learn from the forward (written by his translator whom he worked with over many years) that this was the final book Straka wrote before his mysterious death. The translator admits that not all of the pages of the final chapter were recovered and that he has completed the book for the author, so we don't know how much of the book is truly Straka's work. Nobody, not even the translator, knows the true identity of Straka and this has become the subject of many conspiracy theories and academic debates.

As you can see from the trailer, the book is full of annotations. These annotations are a series of conversations between two people who are trying to solve the mystery of who Straka was, before another academic rival does. There may also be other parties involved in trying to solve, or cover up the mystery, which builds a lot of suspense throughout the annotations. To add further complication to the book, the discussion between the two people is not chronological. There are 4 of 5 different conversations which are dispersed throughout the book, so you are constantly getting a sneak peak of what is to come.

'S.' is definitely not a light read. There are so many layers to the story that it is often hard to keep track; In the novel you are wondering who the mysterious S. character is, as well as searching for clues to Straka's true identity, you do not know how much the translator has altered the original manuscript, or how reliable his frequent footnotes are. On top of that, you become very attached to the two people having the annotation conversations about the book and want to know whether they solve the mystery unharmed. The fictional websites referred to by the annotators are actually real websites, so you can become fully immersed in the story and the theories.

There are a lot of different ideas online about how you should read the book, from reading the entire novel first, without looking at the annotations, to reading it all in one go. I fall into the latter category, and found that the most enjoyable way for me to read the book was to read a double page of the novel at a time, and then read the annotations before moving on. This is partly because I am very impatient and couldn't resist peeking at them! I think whichever way you choose to read it will alter your reading experience, but it will definitely be the most unusual book you've read for a while.

This is not an easy read to dip into for a few pages before you go to bed. I'd say you have to devote at least an hour at a time to it for a satisfying read. 'S.' is a bit like 'Lost' combined with a mystery novel, with a hint of 'The Jolly Postman' (who doesn't love a book full of postcards and letters?). There are some very dark scenes in the book, so it is definitely only appropriate for adults. 

'S.' is such a clever book with so many names, layers and clues, that I suspect a lot of it went over my head in the first reading. I finished reading the book over the weekend and still don't feel like I have all of the answers yet. Definitely one for a re-read soon! Even though I don't fully understand everything, this book gets five stars from me for sheer beauty and such an immersive experience. I think, with the rise of the ebook, this is the direction that physical books should be heading. 'S.' is available as an ebook but I think this would completely take away from the work of art that is the book itself, so I recommend you get the real deal!

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