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BOOK REVIEW: J.J Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.

S. is a story that could only be told on paper, and it’s one that, in lesser hands, could have collapsed under its own ambition.

By: Jake Horowitz
Published: November 1st, 2013 in Culture » Books » Reviews
J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.

J.J. Abrams has not only made a career out of being mysterious, but he’s also popularized what can be considered its own genre: J.J. Abrams entertainment. This genre – ranging from Abrams’ television series, including Lost and Fringe, to movies, including Cloverfield, Super 8, and the new Star Trek films – is one that can be best explained as stories that raise more questions than answers. These stories always look great, feel highly-polished, and contain some of the most innovative storytelling methods of their time. That is to say, J.J. Abrams entertainment always feels like J.J. Abrams entertainment, and not much else can match it.

Up until this week, Abrams’ particular brand of entertainment has been limited to television and film. But now with the release of a book written by Doug Dorst and conceived of by J.J. Abrams, a new genre has hit the literary world and has produced something entirely Abrams-esque. That book is called S., and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Just by picking up S. you can tell that a lot has gone into the production of this book. As Abrams’ himself has said, S. is more like an interactive experience than a straight-forward book, and it shows in the packaging. What you get with S. is a book wrapped in plastic so as to contain the notes, postcards, photos, and codes carefully tucked into its pages. Each item contained in S. has a look of pure authenticity and would feel right at home on the set of an Abrams film or series. The book itself, masquerading as a novel titled Ship of Thesus written by mysterious author V.M. Straka, has been made to look like an aging library book; complete with weathered pages, a stamped sign out sheet on the back cover, and a Dewey Decimal sticker on the spine.

When you open the book you are treated to hand-written notes exchanged in the margins between two students. As the book goes on, these notes take on a story of their own as they give us a sense of the people that have seemingly picked up this book before us. Their exchanges not only serve as an insight into the mysterious text of Ship of Thesus, but also serve as an even deeper level to S., one that requires our full attention as we pour over every page. Their exchanges, while often funny and heartfelt, leave us scanning the margins of the book and trying to imagine their relationship with what we are reading. As we reach certain parts of S., documents enclosed in the pages give us a sense of the mystery that the two students are attempting to uncover, while we’re still left trying to uncover the mysteries of the students themselves.

If this all sounds a little complicated, it’s because it is. S. is in no way light reading, and at times reading S. feels like doing the most gruelling assignment ever given by any teacher. There are layers upon layers to digest, not to mention special codes and secrets that the reader is left wondering how to crack. In the back of the book is a decoder ring, and as suggested by one of the students in the margins, it is meant to decode the footnotes using latitude and longitude coordinates.

However, as gruelling as reading S. can be, it’s also a uniquely satisfying experience that no book before it has replicated. With S., it truly feels as if we are experiencing a work of art rather than a book. The attention to detail between S.’ covers is astounding, and it’s difficult not to feel as if we are reading a book that we shouldn’t be. That is, one that has been in the hands of others and has a deep history and even deeper mystery behind it.

S. was intended to be a love letter to the written word, and in that regard – as well as in most others – it succeeds wildly. S. is a story that could only be told on paper, and it’s one that, in lesser hands, could have collapsed under its own ambition. There are several stories being told beneath the covers of S., and luckily for the reader (as well as for Dorst and Abrams), they are all well-written and worth telling. While the words inside the book itself might be a love letter to the written word, the entire package of S. is one that feels more like a love letter to the films and television series that have come before it. All in all, S. raises more questions than answers, it looks great, it’s highly-polished, it’s innovative, and it’s something that could have only come from the mind of J.J. Abrams.

Related articles: J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst, S. Book, Lost, Alias, Star Trek, Star Wars, Fringe, Ship of Thesus
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Leanne Lieberman’s most recent YA novel follows a Jewish teen who decides she is going to become “un-Jewish” in junior year.

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