Dorst and Abram’s Ship of Theseus atop my personal notes from the book. Newcastle Brown Ale for encouragement.
I love me some gimmicks with my books! Gimme a secret message! Gimme backward pages! Gimme a decoder ring! Wait – Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams (my favorite living genius, besides Neil Degrasse Tyson) did give me a decoder ring of sorts in Ship of Theseus, and I was thrilled. I was excited like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, hiding behind a locked door frantically deciphering the secret message. Ship of Theseus came with postcards, marginalia (in several different colors!), newspaper clippings inserted betwixt the pages! So much fun!
Ship of Theseus is a meta-book within a book within a book. It comes looking like some 1940s library discard, complete with library sticker and Dewey Decimal code. To explain the plot and book-within-a-book may cause me to spin around and fall down. Suffice it to say, the book is a whole world, and two grad students are along for the ride with you, and their commentary is written in the margins with different colors for different readings. According to the online experts, you’re supposed to read the story (an adventure tale replete with mystery), then read the comments in order of color as you go along. Some people do this chapter by chapter, others read the book four or five times to get the different comments. Different items are also inserted into the book in between specific pages: a postcard, a photograph, a decoder wheel (splee!).
The only hiccup . . . a minor glitch . . . a slight bump in the road . . . was my overzealousness. I treated Ship of Theseus like a dissertation. I began to drown in my own notes. I started carrying a briefcase with me everywhere I went so I could have the book, my notebooks about the book, others’ notes about the book, in case epiphany struck. Eventually, like my attempts at sewing and learning how to play the theremin, I put it down and haven’t picked it back up again. Still, just looking at it on my bookshelf fills me with an over-eager sense of adventure, not unlike an 11-year-old boy playing Dungeons and Dragons.
But the gimmicks are so enjoyable. Poo-poo on other onliners who decry such approaches with their snobbery and holier-than-thou attitudes. Gimmicks, for lack of a better term, can create a reading experience. There’s the book, oh yes, but there’s so much more.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl came with an app. An app! Enhancement for scariness! The book was a frightening mental trip. Loved it. Ate it up. Especially the “extras” you get with the app: short “movie trailers” relevant to the plot. After a while you wonder, is this real? It sure seems real . . .
Another gimmicky approach is in The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones. The story follows a young girl in a world where every person is born with 100 crystals in their body that slowly deplete. People lose crystals through injury, accidents, sickness … and at zero crystals, death. The pages of the book count down instead of up, and you realize as you read that your time is drawing to a close.
Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, perhaps the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, manipulates the reader mercilessly. I knew I was being manipulated, and I didn’t care. The pages are sometimes printed in a spiral and you have to keep turning the book in your hands, or the words are backwards, or there is only one word per page and this makes you flip them maniacally as your heart is racing during something horrifying. During one crucial plot point Danielewski inserted one stanza of music. I ran to the piano, plucked out “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and freaked out. This book made me afraid of my own bathroom.
House of Leaves. Mess you up!
The “gimmicks” are not gimmicks. The author is putting you in the story, even more so than just by reading words on a page. It’s The Neverending Story come to life. And I love it. Gimme more.