A Beginner’s Guide to Reading “S”


This post is intended as a short, spoiler-free introduction to new readers of “S”, a book authored by Doug Dorst and conceived by J.J. Abrams. Seasoned readers – you probably already know everything here – so if you want to go deeper, proceed directly to the Intermediate Guide to Reading “S.”

Book of “S” Contents

Ship of Theseus
“S” consists of the fictitious book, Ship of Theseus by the fictitious author V.M. Straka, along with its marginalia, inserts, and translator foreword and footnotes. Ship of Theseus is the 19th book by V.M. Straka. The other 18 books (fictional and non-existent as far as we know) are listed inside the book to the left of the title page in apparent chronological order.

The Marginalia
The book is filled with the margin notes of two people, a male and female, who first meet not personally, but by exchanging notes over a period of time. As you read the marginalia, pay attention to the colors of the ink/pencil used to write, underline, draw, etc. It could help you determine if one set of colors was written at a different time than a second set of colors.

The Inserts
The inserts consist of handwritten notes, photographs, maps, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc., left by the same two people who are writing in the margins in order to communicate. It also includes something called an EOTVOS wheel which you will find in the very back.

Translator Foreword and Footnotes
These are the work of F.X. Caldeira. The foreword introduces the translator’s self, the author V.M. Straka, and various other information about the book and the translator’s influence.

 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Where do I begin?
This is up to you. I suggest you be careful to flip through the book and note the placement of the inserts first. If you don’t, though, there is a handy web page that will help you remember where they all go. The placement of the inserts is likely important to some degree.

Some readers have chosen to read Ship of Theseus along with the marginalia, inserts, and footnotes as they come to them. This is one method. However, it may fragment your ability to comprehend what you are reading with too much multi-tasking. Also, the margin notes may not be in chronological order, so you risk even more confusion if you go front-to-back taking everything in at once.

Another option is to read the printed text of Ship of Theseus in its entirety before going back through a second time and reading the margin notes and viewing the inserts. Understanding the book itself may help you understand extras and the story they contain. This may be difficult for some readers, because the printed text is often underlined, circled, or otherwise emphasized with relevant discussion in the notes.

There is no right or wrong way – there is simply what you think would work best for your style of comprehension and entertainment. This is a book to be savored. Remember, it was conceived by J.J. Abrams, so it is apt to be more than just a mystery – it will probably contain secret codes, tantalizing metaphors, a secret story within the story that is already within the story, etc. Just absorb what you can and let the pieces of the puzzle begin to take shape in your mind. As Abrams himself once said…

I urge you to dig. Give in to the unknown for a while and ponder the mystery. It’s worth it.

What is this EOTVOS wheel thingy and what do I do with it?
That becomes clear only in the margin notes, so don’t worry about it until you have digested those.

Once I get going, what resources are there to help me along?
Here is a list of recommended resources for understanding “S” that go beyond the physical, printed book.

  • The iBook version. If you have an Apple device (Mac, iPad, iPhone), there is an electronic version of the book. The inserts are present and can be “handled” interactively. The EOTVOS wheel even works. This is helpful because everything but the marginalia and inserts is keyword searchable. You also have the wonderful ability to completely turn off the marginalia and inserts, leaving you with nothing but Ship of Theseus to read without distraction.
  • The audio version of Ship of Theseus. This adds another layer to your ability to comprehend the text. The audio does not contain any information about the marginalia, inserts, or footnotes. It is purely Ship of Theseus.
  • The Chinese version of “S.”
  • The Italian version of “S.”
  • The French version of “S.”
  • The Dutch version of “S.”
  • The SFiles22 blog. This blog does a good job of letting you explore the various aspects of the book. However, please be aware that you may find spoilers as you read what the blog author and others have discovered on their journey together. I suggest reading the book through completely, and then coming here if you do want help and don’t mind spoilers. I enjoy the community there and the mutual perplexity as we work through some of the puzzles. Several puzzles have been solved and are explained. This site also does a good job of referencing additional resources not mentioned here.
  • This blog (Thoughts on “S”). This blog is by no means comprehensive. It is simply one reader’s approach to understanding the armature of “S” and the answers to its many magnificent puzzles.
  • This growing list of additional “S” resources.
  • Twitter. Explore twitter to see who is talking about “S” and follow those you think will help you. A great place to start would be @SFiles22 and @MyTheseus – two accounts that focus exclusively on “S”. I suggest you read the book first before following unless you don’t mind spoilers. I would also suggest following @DougDorst, the author of “S”. For example, he just posted something interesting on December 19th that serves as an additional, post-production insert to the book. It is worth studying. I have a feeling that more clues are coming from @DougDorst. There are also some twitter accounts that may or may not be apocryphal: @VMStraka, @EricHusch, @JenHeyward, @FXCaldeira.

Anything else I should keep in mind while I read?
I suggest simply absorbing the story as much as possible. As you do, connections will begin to form in your mind that seem to point you in various directions. For example (minor spoiler alert), there is a monkey that appears occasionally throughout the book. At one point, a character says, “Follow the monkey.” This seems to indicate that each time there is an appearance of the monkey, a clue may be present.

The biggest bit of advice I can offer is simply to relish every part of the “S” experience. Take your time. Explore. Wander. Ponder. Meditate. And, if you so choose, join others in person or online in exploring the mystery of “S.” And if you have anything to add to this guide, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and let everyone know.

Once you have finished the book, take a look at the Intermediate Guide to Reading “S.”

57 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Reading “S””

  1. I am currently reading Ship of Theseus and a couple of the inserts have fallen out. Is there a way to find out where they go, what page they are supposed to be in?

  2. Someone please enlighten me: where to put the sticker sealing the book after tearing it? The one with letter “S”. thx

    • Good question.

      If there is a “specific” purpose intended by J.J. Abrams Doug Dorst, and/or the publisher, I don’t know of anyone who has figured it out. I believe it is meant to be something you can stick anywhere to remind you of “S” and to maybe provoke others to ask, “What is S?”

      Anyone else have any thoughts?

    • I have put it on the back of my phone, prompting many to ask me what this S means and giving me the opportunity to explain that it is a HELLA AWESOME reading experience. 🙂

  3. Hi there. I’ve lived reading this book so far but I’m trying to work out which order to read the different coloured parts of Jen and Eric… I know the black and blue to first, can you suggest which order to read the other colours in? It’s getting hard to focus on just 1 part of the margin story

    • Here is a “color guide” to the marginalia. I hope it helps.

      Pencil – Eric’s notes when he was young, before he met Jen.

      Black (Eric), blue (Jen) – Jen and Eric first meet and begin their discussions.

      Green (Eric), orange (Jen) – Jen and Eric’s relationship deepens

      Red (Eric), purple (Jen) – Jen and Eric share deeper details of Straka and each other

      Black (Eric), black (Jen) – final colors used

      • That’s awesome. Thanks so much!

      • jvalbarr said:

        Is there a known point where I should start reading the next pen color, or do Jen/Eric ever note that they’ve changed pens? I’ve been reading the black/blue and skipping over the others, but the green/orange is becoming increasingly present.

      • I don’t think so. Sometimes the first occurrence in ink may be deeper into the book than a later occurrence – meaning you cannot necessarily assume notes on one page in one color always come after the same color on a previous page. It seems generally true, but definitely not always.

      • I started trying to read the margins in order and kind of got frustrated and took a long break. Will I be able to make sense of it all if I just start at the beginning and read all of the margins as I go? As if I were a stranger who found the book in this condition and so had no clue what order anything should be in?

      • I believe the intent of Dorst/Abrams is to require rumination before the timeline comes into focus. It is deliberately out of order to some degree, but various clues can help reorder it properly. For example, on p16 Eric points out that Jen wrote 112 margin notes in a single day, with an average of “28 per pass.” That seems to mean that she wrote 28, then came back and started another set and then did that two more times. So her notes are definitely not in chronological order. And Eric’s responses may not be either.

      • Rosemary said:

        Hey Brian, I’m currently reading the orange and green notes, but on page 87 eric says that jen left a dot on page 319. And when you go to 319 there is a dot in red ink.
        Which would mean that the red and purple notes came before the green and orange?
        I’m just really confused and don’t understand anything anymore of this book.

      • Good catch. Not only is the color “out of place” if we require a strict order to the ink, but the dot that Jen places there is in RED. Other than this dot, Jen has never written anything in RED. The red pen was Eric’s. And Jen and Eric did not meet in person until they switched inks from orange/green to purple/red (see p266 marginalia). What this says to me is that it was intentional and we all overlooked the fact that the dot was in an ink color that only Eric wrote in. This may be the very first mark made in the book after they met.

        We probably should not get hung up on strict ordering. In fact, this may very well be a clue. Thanks for bringing this to light!

      • Hello, getting ready to read this based on your color guide above, however I have one question. How to I tell which black notes are Eric the first time from Eric the second time?

      • I think the clue is Jen’s response. If her response is blue, Eric’s black is the earlier. If hers is black as well, then it is the later.

  4. I’ve had this book since last December. I’m currently in nursing school, so reading for pleasure has been very limited. I have one week before the new semester starts. I just started last night, I’m not confident I can finish before then, hahaha!
    Thanks For the tips!

  5. I have been meaning to read this book for some time. Today I looked at it at the library but all of the inserts have been removed. Am I correct to assume that I can’t get the complete story without those?

  6. jvalbarr said:

    Just started reading the other day, on Chapter 3 now. Can’t wait to get deeper into it. I’m glad this site is still posting!

  7. Just found out about this book last week. My copy just came in so I am glad this is out there. Thanks for all the tips, hints, etc.

    • Welcome to the party! I hope your experience reading “S” is as enjoyable as mine and the rest of the readers in the community. Please feel free to add comments, questions, requests for info, etc., along the way as you read.

  8. Thanks and I can’t wait to really get into this.

  9. Just got my copy today! It’s been on my wishlist for a while now and I can’t wait to get started!

  10. A coworker of mine had this book with him on his lunch break and I could not wait to find it! Rarely do I spend this much money on a book. Preferring used books and the library, but I was afraid on all the parts not being there so I took the plunge and got it last night. So, glad it is a long weekend!

  11. Delighted to find this site. Had had the book on my wishlist since it was first published but only just got round to buying a copy. I think it’s going to take me months to finish! Have got about 15 pages in, reading all the margin notes and the main text at the same time but I think I might switch to just going with pencil and blue/black plus the text and then going back and reading the rest. I’m excited to discover more, even if it is rather intimidating…

  12. Cam Peterson said:

    I bought the book used. And it’s only missing the wheel at the back. Does anyone know where I could order one from. Or could one of you kindly send me yours to borrow and return when I am done.

    • One option would be to get the digital version of “S”, which has a working EOTVOS wheel in the back. It’s available in iBooks and works great on any iPhone, iPad, Mac. You can also search the text of “Ship of Theseus”, making it pretty handy. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book//id791514011?mt=11

    • Gail A. Sisolak said:

      If you haven’t already found a wheel, you can always see if your library has a copy of “S”, check it out, and use their wheel. I just took “S” out from the library, and was amazed to see that it had all 22 inserts. Either no one has read the book, or they all have been very careful with the contents.

  13. Hello!
    I am just embarking on this adventure!! I have taken all inserts out and labeled them according to order and page number. I am reading the book as a whole, reading marginalia and footnotes as they come. My question is: on page 9 there is a margin note left by Eric that refers to the piece of ephemera that is the School newsletter, but that bit isn’t tucked into the book until page 33! Since it is referred to, should I read it? And is it important that the Bits be read in order and while on the page that they came out of?

    • Tara, first – congratulations on beginning the journey through “S”! I hope you enjoy it thoroughly. To answer your specific question without spoiling too much, consider that Eric and Jen wrote their marginalia throughout the book and were not necessarily constrained to writing chronologically or in any particular order. The book “Ship of Theseus” was a whole to them, and something Eric wrote on a particular page may refer to an insert that comes “later” (to the reader). I hope this helps. Enjoy!

  14. Hi, thanks for putting this page together. I’m on page 309, about 2/3 through. I am still completely confused and haven’t picked up on any clues. Is this normal or have I missed a ton of hidden stuff? I’m just reading the printed page, no notes yet.

    • Totally normal – especially if you aren’t reading the margin notes. If you’ve made it that far, I would suggest finishing just the printed pages and then going back through again reading the margin notes. That’s when you’ll begin to learn more. Good luck!

  15. Excellent resource, thank you!

  16. Is it right that if you find what’s behind this book you’ll be invited to a secret society (so called) about this book?

    • First I’ve heard of that! If true, I don’t know about it. And I don’t know who anyone who has “solved” it. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the case, though!

  17. Ethan Li said:

    Hey Mr.Shipman! I am a fan of Ship of Thesus from China. Most of readers here are not skilled in English as I do, hence they cannot see the many intriguing details in this book and all the fascinating connections and theories that I have seen at this website. Therefore, I would like to translate some of your articles into Chinese and share your idea with more people in our country. Is it OK?

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