Saturday, 21 March 2015

'S' and The Love of Loved Books

Imagine a school library. First Graders going in and out, young enough to be excited by books. No cell phones or tablets to play with. A book is something exciting and new; and the school has the largest collection any of them have ever seen.

Follow one kid in particular. This kid already knows which book to go for. It's a personal favorite. It's been checked out a hundred times. Every time class comes to the library, this kid in particular goes for the same book, and never gets tired of it.

Our kid is excited this time; because the last time? Someone else got to the book first.

The favorite book is grabbed, and checked out, and this sweet little kid opens the book... before letting out a yell of horror. Whoever checked it out last time? Has drawn all over the pages. The words have vanished under a lot of black marker. It's ruined.


***

No, this isn't something that happened to me. At least, not when I was a kid. But I've seen it before. Favorite books with words blacked out all over the place. Sometimes a child scribbling on paper that happened to be available; and sometimes someone would take the time to go through a book with a black marker and cross out all the names, nouns, verbs... Who takes that much time to ruin something with such surgical precision?

Writing in a book? Sacrilege!

And sure enough, for a long time, the only thing I ever wrote in a book was my name. Sometimes, not even that.

And then a few years ago, I noticed something in one of my dad's books. He was writing in his books. There, on the front inside cover, a list of notes with page numbers.

Shock, horror. My dad, of all people.

***

The Internet has been buzzing about 'S' by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. I myself found out this was coming a long time before release, and I had it on preorder months in advance. I'm not behind the curve when it comes to the book, just when it comes to publishing an opinion. First thing to make clear: This isn't a book, it's a package with a book in it.

The item you'll be purchasing is called 'S' but the book you'll be reading is called 'Ship of Theseus'.

It's an interesting title, because it takes it's name from an old philosophical question. "If you replace every single part of a ship over the course of many years... is it still the same ship?"

The Question is one that you won't realize you're answering, because 'S' does such a good job of crafting the item, that you'll forget it isn't an actual book from a library shelf. The original hardcover book has been retouched and added to so many times, that what's for sale isn't anything like an old volume from a university shelf.

The book is densely layered, and like all things JJ Abrams has a hand in creating, has plenty of background information and trans-media, for all those who care enough to try and unravel the mysteries of the backstory.


This book is the winning argument in every debate about eBooks vs Paper Books. Most books, I would say the e-version is just as good, just as real. 'S' is the exception. It is a work of art. You keep turning pages, just letting your eyes glide over the multicolored words. Everything about the package is meant to make you embrace the idea of coming across an old book that two readers have deconstructed and explored. Everything from a sticker on the spine telling you where it belongs in the library, to the faded yellow pages, to the coffee-shop napkins and newspaper clippings pressed between the pages. As the two readers come across hidden messages and hidden secrets in the manuscript, they give you everything you need, including the code-breakers, to follow their footsteps as they uncover the mystery.

You'll notice that I haven't said anything about the plot of the book. That's because, in my humble opinion, the story isn't in the book, the story is in the margins. It is not the story of the characters written, it's the story of the readers. 'S' is a love letter to books and writers and authors and what the authors and readers reveal about themselves, between the pages of a much-loved favorite book.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that I've been won over, on the topic of pre-loved books. I still hold a very special, particularly potent level of hatred for people who blank out whole paragraphs of library books, but for those who write their insights and their knowledge in the margins, I now count myself one of you.

People who love books feel close to authors and characters. Those who have love for pre-loved books get close to other readers too; as a way to share with the audience, and not just the author.

And in case you think I forgot to spread the joy; here's the link:


S. is available on Amazon.com in both Kindle and Hardcopy editions. For once, I insist that you don't buy the e-version. Doing so would be a tragic waste.

(Image from Amazon.com)