Sunday Salon: What’s the difference between a mash-up and a rip-off?


The new book by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams was the first thing I read after completing the TBR Triple Dog Dare.  It had been sitting on the dining room table for just about a month, waiting.

I had already taken a peek at the contents.  It’s design has been praised elsewhere so I won’t go into it much here except to say that I did look over the marginalia, the inserts, the secret code thingy in the back, I even opened up the napkin map.

But I didn’t read any of it until April 1.

After Thursday, and 70 pages,  I decided not to read an more of it.

The thing is a lot of work.  After reading the book for a while you go back and read the marginalia, notes written by two readers of the book, and you read over the inserts.  You can even  make the effort to break the codes contained in the footnotes if you’re so inclined.  (I don’t do that. That is what footnotes are for.)

But I did not find the reward worth the effort.  The central novel, The Ship of Theseus, is decent, I guess.  The story concerns a man called ‘S’ since no one knows his name who has lost his memory.  He has ‘awoken’ on a ship sometime in the 19th century.  There appear to be pirates involved, but I didn’t get far enough into the story to say.  It’s a good novel, but I didn’t find it rich enough to justify the amount of academic study it’s supposed to have generated.

The marginalia is written by two readers of the novel, college students, one a graduate student specializing in books by Straka, the author of The Ship of Theseus.  The two discuss the book, the author, and by page 70, when I gave up, have begun to fall in love.  Their notes are color-coded, clearly the blue and black pens were used first when the two were falling in love and the red and green ones were used later after they became convinced that their lives were in danger.

That the two communicate via a library book is an interesting idea until it becomes  ridiculous.   How long can you pass notes back and forth in a university library book?  I’ve done the whole correspondence before meeting/dating thing and you really need to meet after a handful of exchanges or you should move on.

I would have finished S had it been shorter, much shorter.  By page 70 it was pretty clear to me how it was all going to turn out.  The mystery of the book and its authorship has been done many, many times before.   The Shadow of the Wind. The 13th Tale. Possession. The Blind Assassin.  And most importantly, The House of Leaves.

With all of it’s puzzles, clues, and its choose your own adventure type formatting, reading S was a lot like playing the computer game Myst but, at heart, I found S to be a cross between The House of Leaves and Griffin and Sabine.  To be honest, I think S should have an “inspired by” front piece, give credit where credit is due.

The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski concerns a manuscript about a movie about the exploration of a haunted house.  It’s a wonderful book, scary and exciting, presented in type arranged to force the reader to turn the book over and over in order to read it.  Some pages have only a single word on a page, others have paragraphs inside paragraphs.  And it has footnotes within footnotes, each set written by a different author/editor, forcing the reader to grapple with knowing which sections of the actual book and/or the movie it’s about are really real.  I loved it.

Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock is a series of books made up of letters and postcards between two artists who fall in love while writing to each other.  Some of the postcards are printed on the page, picture on one side and text on the other.  Others are in envelopes that the reader has to remove, open and read.  While the two are falling in love, there is always a mystery as to just who the two people are.  Griffin and Sabine is full of wonderful, full-color, artwork as well.  It’s also much, much shorter.  Take all three Griffin and Sabine books together and you probably have 30 pages of type at most.  The time it took to work through the notes in S both irritated me and pointed out just how mundane the love story was.  Mundane and a little hard to believe.

Which brings me around to my final issue with S.  Many reviews have praised the book for being a wonderful object, a kind of artwork in itself.   But in all honesty, I was a bit disappointed with the book’s as an object from the start.  Even before I read it, I thought the pages with the marginalia were not that impressive, not artistic.  The pages in The House of Leave are much more visually interesting, much more creative.  The inserts in S are almost all monochromatic, which is acceptable, but it’s not impressive, not when compared to Griffin and Sabine.

So, with all this in mind, and facing another 380 pages of hard work, did I want to read on just to find out how it all ends?  J.J. Abrams is still probably best known as the creator of the television series Lost.  I watch Lost devotedly until sometime in the  fourth season. There’s a lot of us out there who watched devotedly until sometime in the fourth season.  The story was fascinating, trying to figure out what all the weirdness meant was fun.  Talking about the show with other people was fun, too.

But by the fourth season it was clear to me that the creators were basically making things up as the went along.  Fine with me, for a while anyway, but if I’m going to keep at it for seven seasons (I think there were seven) then there really has to be a point to it all.  I didn’t watch the final episodes but I understand that it turned out they were all in purgatory.  That’s an old episode of Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery, I’m sure of it.  So, if you have to watch seven seasons to come to such a mundane conclusion, second rate Rod Sterling,  then I’m not reading 380 more pages of S just to see what happens.

In the end, I abandoned S and headed straight back to my TBR stack.  I’ve already read two books that I enjoyed.

Reviews will follow.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: What’s the difference between a mash-up and a rip-off?

  1. I’ve heard a lot about this book, and I’ve been mildly curious, but not enough to actually look for the book. I did love the Griffin & Sabine books I read – I’m an archivist, and I’m fascinated by reading letters (the more historical the better).

    1. I’m a little bit of an amateur archivist in that I also enjoy old letters. Mine come from antique stores and flea markets,the occasional estate sale. The mystery behind them, even the simple postcard note from 100 years ago, can be fascinating.

  2. I bought it and have opened it … but not read it so far … not sure about it.

  3. I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it was first released, and I’m always intrigued by these kinds of high-concept books with unusual formats. But I haven’t seen many actual reviews by people who read it, and the J.J. Abrams name doesn’t do it a favor in my eyes. I don’t trust the guy with long, complicated stories. I thought both Alias and Lost fell apart in the end (Alias more than Lost), and I’ve not been impressed with his work on the Star Trek reboot. So a long book by him? Nope.

    I do need to read House of Leaves and Griffin and Sabine though.

  4. I had a hard time finding reviews by people who’d read the entire book, too. Most people just went on about the look of the book and the concept of it.

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