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Goodreads Review: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I bought this book when I was living on the Isle of Iona for 2 months. Iona is a six-mile island, off the West coast of Mull (which is a larger island, off the West coast of Scotland). It takes 8 hours to travel from Iona to Edinburgh. It took many more than 8 hours for this book to travel from the mainland to Iona.



My friend T. recommended the book to me for its marginalia, for its blatant role as J. J. Abram’s love-letter to books. Doug Dorst, I am unfamiliar with, but I was willing to give him a try. I ordered the book on Amazon, and waited. I ordered a few other books as well, from other sellers. And waited.

The other books came. I waited. S. was ellusive.

I contacted the sellers.

Where is my book?

“Coming,” they said. “Just wait,” they said.

Eventually, they admitted it was lost.


They sent a new copy, which arrived 2 days later. It only takes 2 days for a book to come from the mainland to Iona, when that book is in a hurry, when those sellers are in trouble.


It was wrapped so carefully, and the package was heavy. This book has heft. It came in a brown envelope, which opened onto bubble-wrap, which held the clear-wrapped book inside — at least, the box which holds the book. I had to break a seal. It was all very official. More than official. It was adventurous.


When I was younger, I fell in love with marginalia. It was a magical conversation between unknown elements: a book that cannot be changed, an author that cannot speak back, a reader that cannot be silent. I read Mortimer Adler’s essay How to Mark a Book, and made it my manifesto. When I got S. this spring, I carried the book around with me, all over the island. I was crawling out of my skin with excitement. I showed it to everyone.


My roommate Cassidy was from Canada. She and I became friends by virtue of the fact that we were accidentally reading the same book. She showed up on Iona, moved into the room, and started reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. She had brought a copy with her. I had left most of my books at home, but had found Steinbeck downstairs in the volunteer house’s communal bookshelves. When she told me what she was reading, I didn’t believe her. I made her hold up the book to make sure she hadn’t stolen mine.

I had told her all about S. from the beginning, when T. first introduced me to it, when I ordered it, when the order got lost. She was the first person I showed the book to, when it actually arrived. We were in the Abbey refectory after dinner. I turned away for a second, and when I looked back, the book was gone. I panicked, glared around, and eventually caught on to the joke. Cassidy had ‘borrowed’ it — just moving it out of my reach into her bag. She stood there grinning like the prank was the best of the century. She hadn’t even held it for 5 minutes when I demanded it back.


Later in our room in Cul Shuna, Cassidy broached the topic.

“Emma, I know this is kind of like asking to play with someone else’s Christmas present before them…”

Go on, Cous Cous.

“… but can I read S. while you’re not reading it?”

My immediate response: absolutely not.

I had chosen not to start delving into S. until after returning to Edinburgh from Iona. I had read the introduction, part of the first chapter, and discovered that I was getting too far in over my head. I was getting lost in the book. It felt really overwhelming and suffocatingly wonderful, like if left to my own devices I could drown before putting the book down. It scared me slightly. I thought, now might not be the time for this. It didn’t mean I wanted anyone else to have the book first.

At the time, I was sleeping with it in my bed. No joke.

But it only took me ten minutes to change my mind. I laid ground rules:
– Don’t take the book outside of the house.
– Don’t let any of the added things fall out of the pages.
– Don’t spill anything or eat anything near it.
– Above all, DO NOT speak to me about the book while you are reading it.

S., from The Guardian

S., from The Guardian

My philosophy for the rules: I wanted my knowledge of the book to be exactly the same as if Cassidy wasn’t reading it. That is: I wanted to know NOTHING.

My philosophy for letting her read it before me: This is clearly a book that deserves to be read.

And I guess that’s the bottom line.


Part 2 to come: When I finally started S...

Posted by

a nomadic poet with her hands in too many books.

1 Comment so far Join the Conversation

  1. I had no idea that there were even inserts!!! When I saw the marginalia I was instantly enamoured of that, and knew that it’s something I must own and read. But now, the inserts—I am falling in love all over again. (Is that even possible, to feel that way with a book?)

    Oh gosh, now I really have to buy a copy of this. Although I haven’t seen it yet here on our bookstores, dammit.

    I look forward to the second part of this.



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