The e-book made real
J. J. Abrams, the creator of Lost (that “theological”, “mythological”, “numerological”, “dualistic”, “apocalyptic”, popular TV series) has “conceived” of a book. Doug Dorst has actually written it and Canongate have duly published.
B. S. Johnson’s novel in a box The Unfortunates, both Nabokov’s Pale Fire and The Original of Laura, the study of marginalia, Tom Phillips's book-as-art Humument – these might all be seen as influences on Abrams’s conception. But in fact, he says, he “conceived” of S simply when he found an abandoned book in an airport, annotated with a note to the future reader.
Here is the shape of his realized conception: a cardboard sleeve marked with the letter S and a monkey and a ship. The sleeve contains a convincingly battered library book, with all the library stickers and stamps you would expect, both inside and out. The book is called Ship of Theseus and is written by the mysterious V. M. Straka. It tells the story of a captive man with no memory. When you open the book you see that it has been annotated by its past readers. The whole printed text is littered with handwritten conversation, doodles, declarations. Then there are the things that fall out of the book, a paper napkin from the Pronghorn Java coffee shop on which someone has drawn a map of a university campus. Newspaper articles, lists, photos, postcards, all meticulously reproduced, are kept between the pages. This is the book as beautiful object.
It doesn’t take long to work out that the annotations are supplied by just two characters, Jennifer and Eric, over several years. They are obsessed, in turn, with each other and Straka, the author of the book.
You have to decide for yourself how to go about reading this. One reader looked at me in patient miscomprehension when I asked if he was reading the “novel” first, or the “play” set on top of it in the marginalia. He was reading everything at once, of course, because that is the only way. And one of many.
The thing is – of course – you can’t read this on a regular Kindle. S is a kind of love song to the physical book and to those things we love about physical books that you can hold, fold, and store things in.
You can read S as an e-book on an iPad or a Kindle Fire, but in that format the pull-outs and design detail – the way an address on the back of a postcard grins through the crossings-out of violently applied black felt-tip pen, for example – are unremarkable. We have come to expect additions in the electronic versions of texts. In e-books, pictures and animations are used to “enhance” the “reader experience” and authors are invited to think of new ways to exploit the medium.
Perhaps what is remarkable about this, then, is not that it was conceived of, but that it was printed. Because this is an e-book, made real; it is a love song as much to animation and interactivity as to library books and what their readers add to them.
The e-book made real: You will be amazed by the quality of the screen resolution.