T.S. Spivet is on the front porch when the phone call comes. He’s making a map, in a blue spiral notebook, of his sister shucking corn. T.S.’ notebooks are color-coded. The blue ones are “Maps of People Doing Things.”
T.S. is an inveterate mapmaker. A map, to him, is not just a drawing of where things are; a map might diagram a process. And everything is a process. T.S. maps the world. He’s also 12 years old.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is an app. It is a map, as well, and it is a book, and the electronic version of it that is available from Apple’s iTunes Store could not have been published any other way.
As is proper for a book that is so concerned with maps, this one is liberally sprinkled with drawings and diagrams. And, delightfully, none of them are fixed in place. They respond to your fingers. You can move them around the page, rotate them, pinch them to zoom in or out. Want to restore them to their default positions? Double-tap.
The opening page is a map of how to navigate the book. Illustrations festoon the wide page margins surrounding the single column of text, and a slider down the right margin (your right, the book’s left) lets you jump, visually, to anyplace in the book.
It’s hard to say what’s most delightful about this book. Is it the detailed quasi-technical, slightly steampunk-style line dawings? Is it the matter-of-fact humor with which T.S. talks about his family? When his mother, an entomologist whom he refers to as “Dr. Clair,” comes to the porch to call him to the phone, he describes her: Dr. Clair was the kind of mother who would teach you the periodic table while feeding you porridge as an infant but not the type, in this age of global terrorism and child kidnappers, to ask who might be calling her children on the telephone. His descriptions of his mother, father, siblings, friends, and the animals they live with are maps to them and their interlocking personalities.
The writing is as engaging as the presentation. The initial setting is Divide, Montana, a tiny town you could miss from the highway if you happened to adjust your radio at the wrong moment. There are two ways through the town: the railroad, and the Big Hole River:
Each had its own way of moving through the land and each had its own odor of passage: the railway tracks cut straight ahead, asking no questions of the bedrock through which it sliced, the wrought-iron rails smelling of axel grease and the wooden slats of rancid, licorice-scented shellac. In contrast, the Big Hole River talked with the land as it wound its way through the valley, collecting creeks as it went, quietly taking the path of least resistance. The Big Hole smelled of moss and mud and sage and occasionally huckleberries — if it was the right time of year, though it had not been the right time of year for many years now.
The best candidate for what’s most delightful about this book is the way the interface is designed; the loving care and attention to detail with which it caters to the reading experience. When you double-tap to return drawings to their default positions, they don’t just snap willy-nilly back into place. They glide carefully into their proper positions, inviting you to watch. Even the typography is beautiful, which is a very rare thing, indeed, in electronic publishing.
The way the illustrations and the text work together encourages the reader to indulge digressions and come back enriched from them. Because, like a well-made map, this meticulously-constructed book about a mapmaker and his maps makes it easy and effortless to find your way back to the narrative.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, is available from Apple’s App Store.