Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

I don't write reviews and this isn't really one. The only time I wrote anything remotely resembling a review, was a book report for a high school English class and I got an appalling mark for it (a C if you're wondering. I never felt the need to apply myself in languages).

I first spotted The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet in Exclusives Books in Domestic Departures at Cape Town International. It's my habit to browse bookshops in airports but despite my warnings to myself that I rarely leave bookshops empty-handed, that I have no more space for books, that Exclusive's books are generally overpriced and that I cannot afford an overpriced book and that I already have a pile of unread books, I still ventured in. To browse. Just browse. Right?

I'd already noticed several books that peaked my interest (the new Niffenegger, the new Mieville) but luckily their exorbitant price tags frightened me off.

It was the cover of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet that grabbed my attention (see above).* A few times I've been attracted to books with appealing covers but luckily, unlike some terrible wines I've picked based on attractive labelling, I'd never bought a book that was terrible but had an attractive cover and decided to have a closer look. I turned the book over to read the synopsis. It was the first part of the first sentence that sold the book:

T.S Spivet is a genuis mapmaker...

I glanced down at the price tag hoping beyond hope that it wouldn't frighten me off as was the case with the other books despite knowing subconsciously that I had to have the book no matter the price. Surprisingly, and to my relief, the price wasn't all that frightening and the fact that I had a R20 discount voucher in my wallet was enough justification to leave the bookshop less than empty-handed.

I was drawn into the book by the unconventional style it was written in. The illustrations are not just for the benefit of the cover but compromise about two-thirds of the book. Margin notes and illustrations are lead off from the main text by arrows and often serve as more than mere footnotes, containing integral information about both story and character.**

While I might enjoy reading their stories, there are few dysfunctional (and young) characters I identify and empathise with to the extent that I did with 12 year old T.S. Spivet. I make maps but I'm not a genius at it (or anything else for that matter). I've come a long way since 12 too.

There was more empathising than identifying with T.S. We have mapmaking in common, albeit of a different sort. We're both incredibly observant of the world and analyse it neurotically. We find adult behaviour quite strange (often I find my own adult behaviour quite strange). And T.S. is surrounded by people that don't quite understand him. But that's it as far as similarities go. T.S. is very odd and uses his obsessive mapmaking, which goes beyond that of your typical topographical map, as a coping mechanism for his lack of understanding of the world. He's also not your average 12 year old. His vocabulary is far too large and so is his grasp of philosophical and metaphysical concepts, and he has insight that most adults lack.***

T.S.'s story is one of inquisitiveness, discovery, imagination, and adventure but is also filled with longing, melancholy, loneliness and guilt.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is by no means a perfect debut for writer Reif Larsen and I was quite surprised (and sometimes confused) by the turns the book took in the second and last thirds but I accepted the story the writer wanted to tell and the open-ended conclusion. It's a sad ending**** despite T.S. apparently finding the belonging he was looking for. The saddest ending for me since Flowers for Algernon, A Scanner Darkly and Firmin.

I'm grateful to the author for writing a book in an original, quirky style and for writing such a rich character. The book, despite its faults, is important to me***** but I cannot really convey in words what it means to me. It was something to with the oddities of people, life and the world in general and how we all try and make sense of it in our way.

* This was my first introduction to the book. It was after finishing the book and looking it up online that I discovered that there was considerable hype surrounding the release of the book last year. I was quite surprised that I was completely oblivious to it.

**Some reviews have noted that this is distracting. Especially when having to turn the book sideways to read them. I loved it though. I found it engaging and it made me feel a bit like a kid again to be honest.

***Well, he is a genius after all. While it might seem unrealistic, I felt that this further emphasised T.S.'s oddness but made it easier for me to identify with him than other young characters.

****This is open to interpretation.

*****The reason for this blog post.

For proper reviews go here and here.



  1. Loved flowers for Algenon.

    And I know what you mean about entering a book store. My "current" addiction is travel guides. Occassionally I actually fall asleep with one beside me.

  2. I have never read any of T.S. Spivet's work before but now you really have made me want to go to Exclusives right now and get a copy. It is hard to walk away from a good looking book