Will the runaway success of S show a way forward for the printed book as a luxury object?
Within a few months of its publication, the novel S, conceived by J.J. Abrams and written by Dough Dorst, had quickly sold out in bookshops. When I came across it in a university bookstore, I knew nothing about it, except to notice that it was shrink wrapped so you couldn’t open the pages to browse. Publishers do this when a book is extra-illustrated and, of course, to make you curious. In the case of S,
I soon found out there were all kinds of inserts laid in: postcards, photocopies, handwritten pages from legal pads, newspaper clippings, a hand-drawn map on a napkin, letters, margin notes in two different handwritings and even an old book slip-cased inside a box. Actual objects that you could feel, take out, and place back as you read the text.
Two graduate students discover this book and begin leaving margin notes in the same copy for each other. The old book is called Ship of Theseus, by an author named V.M. Straka. The name is fictitious, and one of the mysteries in the book is to figure out the real identity of the author. The two bibliophiles must do this by reading the other’s margin notes, and with this comes the real twist: it is for us, the readers, to figure out this puzzle with the help of these margin notes and the clues, pointers and directions that the inserts point to.
Abrams, who first thought of the idea, is the creator of several puzzle-driven TV serials, from Lost to Alias to Fringe, and the director of the recent Star Trek reboot and the forthcoming all new Stars Wars sequel in 2015. Readers will immediately be reminded of the other bestselling book series that featured inserts: Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, which had actual handwritten letters slipped inside envelopes and mounted in, along with exotic postcards and stamps from far-flung places. Except there the inserts were bound-in and not placed loosely between pages as in S.
Both S and Griffin and Sabine should not be confused with lavishly illustrated books or even the occasional book which plays around with typesetting such as the cult novel, The House of Leaves (which is one of the oddest-looking books you will ever see with its vertical footnotes and blank pages) and the more recent The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, where each page is a blown up photograph of the envelopes Dickinson scribbled poems on.
The runaway success of S could mean that more publishers might get into the act of the high concept book. To offer a book where the book as an object to hold and explore matters as much as the text inside could mean one way of beating e-books.
In an interview to the New Yorker, Abrams said, “It’s intended to be a celebration of the analog, of the physical object. In this moment of e-mails, and texting, and everything moving into the cloud, in an intangible way, it’s intentionally tangible. We wanted to include things you can actually hold in your hand…”
Daniel D’Addario writing in Salon observed that a book like S could show “a way forward for the printed book — as a luxury object”. “As e-books are stripping down to the bare-bones of what is actually book-like,” he wrote, “physical books are growing more sumptuous and fetishistic. Though anecdotally, book covers seem to be steadily improving in aesthetic quality, not every major release, certainly, is as astoundingly detailed as J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a book full of inserted cards bringing one an immersive multimedia experience, or Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a box containing 14 discrete volumes that can be read in any order.”
As lovely and intriguing as they are, luxury books are still only deluxe trade editions rather than finely crafted and printed books. S is a good place to start considering the book as object but bibliophiles shouldn’t get stuck with the luxury book but move on to looking at the real thing — private press books.
Integral to the making of a fine book is the coming together of text and typography, paper and printing. E-books offer no challenge to the fine press book, and can never ever replace them.
Still, S is quite a splendid achievement in the physical book where trade editions are concerned and the credit no doubt should go to the real author of the book,
Doug Dorst, the production and design department at Little Brown and the printers who pulled this off.