NetGalley Top Reviewer

NetGalley Top Reviewer
NetGalley Top Reviewer

Monday, February 29, 2016

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

3.0 out of 5 stars -- "One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire."

This unique reading experience is presented as S. in a cardboard slipcover with 22 different inserts and lots of color-coded notes in the margins of the actual book that is titled SHIP OF THESUS. There are 5 of us in the group and we are reading it together: a Physics teacher, a librarian/nurse (me), and two library science students at the high school we work at/attend together. Several suggestions have been given about the best way to actually read this book -- I think of it more as that we five are going on an adventure together -- but this is how we are doing it:

First we organized ourselves by taking all the inserts out of the book and labeling them with the page number location where they were removed and putting all of those in an envelope. We all have a dictionary, our iPads and a notebook with a pen and highlighter handy. List of inserts/page numbers taken from

We will read independently - one chapter at a time -- but have agreed to read just the actual SHIP OF THESUS book through first, then the blue ink and the black caps ink in the margins, along with any inserts found between the pages of that chapter. We take notes as we read and look up anything that grabs our interest along the way -- oh how I love a book that brings out the researcher in me! Then we plan to meet after we read each chapter to share our thoughts, comments, and questions. We are taking it slow, right now, shooting for only one chapter (about 30 pages) a week. We don't want to rush through it and want to make sure don't miss a thing on this trip.

I'll get back here when we have finished this journey and provide an overall review and recap.

1-15  We've decided that all the side margin notes and the inserts are way too distracting and we are quite confused. Reading has become a tedious exercise. We will move forward to Chapter 3 now reading only the text of SOT and the pencil notes. Ignoring the inserts for now.

1-21 We had our 4th meeting today to discuss Chapter 3. After some discussion in an earlier meeting, we changed our plan and now are reading only SOT and the original pencil notes by Eric. The other margin notes were too distracting and confusing. We are seeing themes of identity, rebirth, change throughout. Quite a bit left to interpretation and imagination within the book and we are going through it a chapter at a time. He's (S---) gone from a tavern, to a ship, to a wharf during a demonstration. The locations are nameless.

1-26 - Met to discuss chapter 4. Another chapter, another adventure. This time S is in a house (labeled with S of course in that strange script) with the leaders of the demonstrators -- they are hiding from the police after the bomb went off -- they're suspects.
More recurring themes: birds and bees, Sola again (but a problem develops and a question of whether or not this is same girl), "home is not safe" -- always changing. Allegory about hell?
See the homage to the art of storytelling thru writing or oral narratives -- it's how we tell the world who we are? There is a connection between writer and reader!
New clothes for S - he get a new set almost everywhere he goes.
Thought -- S is being reborn, changing -- we change through experiences we have and people we meet -- same as S.
Seems to be a preoccupation with relationships.
Where is he geographically? Eastern Europe?  City and country names not mentioned. Surnames of different nationalities such as French or Swedish.
Off to explore caves next. Traveling companions with S.

1-27 Great article from UTNE
The Ship of Thesus and the Question of Identity

1-29 Met this am to discuss Chapter 5. Still seeing the same themes and starting to wonder if SOT might be Straka's metaphoric autobiography? S__ sure finds himself in dire situations where he's given the chance to step up, but usually does not. He lets people down. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  Is S___ passive-aggressive?
Another common theme is that of being alone vs relationships.  "LOVE. LOSE. DIE." S__doesn't seem to have much luck with people he runs into and they sure don't fare better for meeting him.
The cave painting description was interesting as was their journey into (and out) of it.
Once again S___finds himself in water, alone, and lo and behold -- there's the SOT there, waiting, with all his old shipmates.
We see S__experiencing loss, a little shame and will he atone and do penance?

2-2 Met to discuss Chapter 6. Our confusion as to who S__ is, and what he's doing continues. Is he moving toward something or away from something? Everywhere he goes, people die trying to help him. Time is passing -- and he's unaware. He (his foot) was healed in the water (baptism?) and now is back on the ship. Bizarre ritual observed below decks. Crew down to 15 sailors from 19 and some are women, he just notices. He's writing his story on the walls of his cabin.
Reasons for change - time, circumstances, people and experiences.

2-9 Met to discuss Chapter 7. We were quite surprised by events that bring even more questions and confusion. S___ is writing. S____ has aged. S_____still has no answers to his history though it seems that memories are coming. The visit to the island was interesting -- who was that old woman?
Is this whole experience to this point some sort of dream state for S____?  He's back to the ship after seeing all the books and the old woman. Makes a mistake to sneak a visit the orlop deck? or is it not a mistake after all?

2-11 Again we meet to talk about Chapter Interlude when S___is apparently fulfilling his duties with the contents of the valise and murdering the Agents who work for THE BOSS (Vevoda).  It was interesting to see a reference to a specific place (Sarajevo) and a real event (assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) and some other details that eliminate some of the vagueness associated with the rest of the book. May be helpful to review some of the pertinent history of that time and place. Circa 1914?
Interesting that S___sews up his own lips but takes out the thread when he leaves the ship to go on his missions. He still spends hours in the orlop writing "all the stories of the world" and time is fluid.

2-16 Met for Chapter 8 - on the Territory for another assassination. This time -- someone S___ has known in the past! Again his guides are killed/die. There's a baby too -- what does it mean? Some good quotes in this chapter: "What matters is what you DO, not what you are called." (name is not your identity). "Better a change than an end."  "History - a story of choices."  When S____attempts to return to the ship, it's been destroyed and all appear dead.

2-22 Well, we have finished reading the book of Ship of Thesus and were quite dismayed by the NONending. No answers. Just a lot of platitudes and axioms about life in general. What happened at the Chateau? Where are S and Sola going (if anywhere). Where's their ship? Is this a happy ever after ending for them?

Not sure what to do next. We've agreed that we will give a shot to going back through and now reading the margin notes and trying to figure out what the inserts have to do with anything. I'm afraid we all missed the boat and the message of this one...

2-29 How appropriate to end our reading of this book on "Leap Day" -- yes, we're done. After all this time, we just don't want to commit any more to trying to decipher the hidden means, go through the clues, and figure out any further revelations from this book. The experience was interesting, but in the end, all the "extras" didn't really do anything to add to the value or the story of S. In fact, the most common complaint from the group was that the story was frustrating and confusing.
SO -- we're glad we read it, found some insight about the truth of personal identity and change.
I'm thinking that others might get more out of it than we did, but we just didn't want to invest any more energy and continue reading between the lines (and around them) to get the whole story!

I like this quote (on a card inserted between pages 360-361) attributed to VM Straka: "A person is NO MORE & NO LESS than the story of his Passions and Deeds."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I need a follow-up post about this incredible book. My perhaps over-simple question is this: do you feel figuring out the format is worth it?

  3. Well, we have finished reading the actual book. We were quite disappointed. Speaking for myself, it was a lot of work for so little payoff. I'm hoping that there is something amazing revealed as we go back through from the beginning reading the margin notes (though at this point we have no clue what any of that interaction has to do with the actual SOT book part).