A thousand years ago, a volcano covered the area northeast of Flagstaff Arizona with lava and cinder. Today the lava flows are still black and fresh. Tiny wildflowers poke through the cinder in places and stands of ponderosa pines have found homes, but most life has been slow to return.
In the 1967 the U.S. Geological Survey staked out fifteen acres in the corner of one of these cinder fields and blew 500 craters in it
. Each explosive charge was carefully placed and calibrated. Even the order of detonation and shape of the debris was considered because they were recreating something real, but remote: The impact history of Mare Tranquillitatis
, where Apollo 11 planned to land on the Moon.
All of the Apollo moonwalkers and their backup crews trained on this little patch
of manufactured history, these new craters amid the old. They learned how to recognize lunar geography from the surface, practiced their traverses, and tested their equipment. It wasn't the moon, but it was as close as we could get in 1967.
The crater field is still there
, down Forest Service Road 776. Today a public campground is tucked in a small stand of pines next to the cinder field. The Wednesday in August I was there, a dozen RV's and one tent called it home. I'd been warned that driving on the cinders was like quicksand for ordinary cars, I parked in the shade of a pine and started hiking. The half-mile trek to the crater field was hard going. My boots sank deep in to the black glass popcorn of volcanic cinder. Just like Apollo astronauts, I had trouble matching my view on foot with satellite photos, with the craters nearly invisible until I was almost on top of them. They were a range of sizes, some overlapping or lopsided. They might be new by geologic standards, but they aren't what they used to be. The rims subsided and the bottoms filled—the deepest not more than five feet. Weather was partially responsible, but the main culprit was humanity. The entire area is now an off-reading park. There were no other hikers on the cinder field that afternoon, but two ATV's bounced around among the craters.
As I stood alone, where moonwalkers learned their trade, I was conflicted. Were the off-road vehicles defacing this historic site? Or had the USGS done that with dynamite fifty years before? Were the Apollo astronauts who tested the capabilities of their own moon buggies among these artificial craters so different?
I carried a book on that hike that had a lot in common with that pocket of repurposed history.
* * *
My hardbound copy of V. M. Straka's Ship of Theseus
clearly had a history before I picked it up. Pages were yellowed and filled with notes and highlights. Clippings, photos, and other ephemera were stuffed throughout, springing the spine. A sticker indicated it has been liberated (possibly illicitly) from a highly school library. Return dates stamped inside the back cover ranged from 1957 to just a dozen years ago.
Reading the translator's forward I discovered this was the final work of V. M. Straka before his murder in 1949. He was a contentious figure who had offended governments and titans of industry with his writing (and may have been involved in revolutions more critically than just writing about them). But he was also mysterious. Some scholars speculate that he faked his death, others wonder if he even existed. The book that follows is a powerful allegorical tale of a man who has lost his memory and is shanghaied into a supernatural world. It's quite good.
But it's what happens in the margins, fifty years after it was published that transforms it into something else. Two college students, who share a fascination with the mysteries surrounding the author, start a dialog in marginalia. Through these handwritten notes—hers in cursive, his in block print—they form a relationship as they winnow clues out of the text, searching for truth about the author. Throughout the pages they tuck clippings, notes, postcards, and other evidence of their search as they're drawn into their own worlds of betrayal, danger, and love.
It's an amazing thing to read. The original text would be enough to recommend it, a thought-provoking allegory about a man forced to discover himself through a deadly conspiracy. But on the same pages, sourcing the same text, is a different search for identity and meaning, told through marginalia and inserts. They take a historical artifact and repurpose—some might consider deface—it to make something new.
The whole thing—book, margin notes, and ephemera—is a manufactured artifact. There is no V. M. Straka, and he didn't write Ship of Theseus
in 1949. It was written by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams in 2013. It comes from the printer with yellowed the pages and "hand written" notes in seven colors. Even the inserts, from a map scribbled on a coffee shop napkin to postcards from Brazil, were all created for this book, already inserted between the pages before it arrives in a readers hands. It's an artificial history, constructed to tell a very specific story, then repurposed to tell another. Officially, it isn't even called Ship of Theseus
, it's listed under S.
(Yes, the period is part of the title. The book within explains.)
There is no ebook or audio version of S
. There would be little point. Just like the Apollo crater field, it's a carefully crafted historical recreation, purpose-made for the physical experience. Merely looking at pictures won't convey the important part. It needs to be explored.
(A note: If you are looking to buy Doug Dorst's S.
, avoid used copies as they are often missing the inserts.)