Featured Lit & Arts

The J.J. Abrams Interactive Book Experience

What would happen if a stranger left a book with notes for the next person to read? J.J. Abrams has the answer, not as a television show or a movie, but in the form of a hardback library book.

S, conceived by the multi-hyphenate Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, award-winning author of Alive in Necropolis, is essentially a novel within a novel as wonderfully complicated as any Lost episode. First, there is Ship of Theseus by the fictional V.M. Straka, an elusive writer whose name alone sparks conspiracy theories filled with authorship controversy, criminal activity, and murder. The second layer of text comes from Jennifer, a senior lit major at Pollard State University, and Eric, a grad student whose dissertation attempts to crack the Straka mystery. Their handwritten notes in the margins of the pages develop into the main narrative as they discuss with each other the author, the plot and its characters, and eventually their own lives. Throw in a forward and footnotes written by the strange editor and translator F.X. Caldeira, and what starts as a standard mystery novel turns into something much more.

This Abrams-Dorst collaboration, however, is more than just a book with a complex storyline—it’s an interactive artifact. Not only does it adopt the appearance of a cloth-bound library book from 1949, complete with yellowed pages and due dates stamped in the back, but it is also stuffed with supplementary materials that Jennifer and Eric leave for each other as the story progresses: a copy of The Daily Pronghorn, the university newspaper; photocopies of memos and telegrams sent by Straka, all part of Eric’s research; postcards and handwritten letters on coffee-stained notebook paper; and even a coffee shop napkin inked with the map of PSU’s campus.

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As stimulating as any book could possibly be, S demands much more of its readers than your typical novel. At a recent talk at New York City’s Symphony Space, Abrams, Dorst, and host Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls discussed how exactly to read the book. According to Abrams, some readers have read Straka’s novel all the way through before returning to the marginal notes; though he recommended taking Ship of Theseus chapter by chapter and following up with Jennifer and Eric’s narrative, Dunham insisted that tackling the students’ storyline first was more entertaining for her.

Regardless of how readers choose to interact with the book, S is a one-of-a-kind experience. In an age dominated with online media, S certainly serves, as it is noted on the back cover of the book sleeve, as “a love letter to the written word.”