There’s a certain type of person you’ve probably encountered in grade school. Perhaps you were this person yourself. This was the person who didn’t just like to read — reading was part of their identity. The one who was on a first name basis with the librarian; the one who finished all the Harry Potter books by middle school; the one who always had a book on their desk and it was always thicker than a dictionary; the one who, when the Scholastic Book Fair came to school, arrived with two crisp twenty dollar bills and put more thought into their purchases than most would into buying a car. You get the idea. Chances are, this person doesn’t read so much anymore. Maybe they haven’t found the time or just haven’t gotten around to making that trip to the library, but of course, deep down they know that they just don’t enjoy reading as much as they used to. This experience is encapsulated by Erin Morgenstern’s “The Starless Sea.”
The book is an amalgamation of interconnected narratives experienced by the main character, Zachary. It starts with him finding a book in a college library that tells of an event from his own life that he’s never told anyone about. What follows is a fairy-tale-like adventure where Zachary is taken from story to story, about everything from pirates to princesses to painters. In what is essentially a story about stories, he rides this rollercoaster of fantastical narratives, guided by the eccentric characters he meets along the way.
My initial impulse was to hate this book. The plot is all over the place and often confusing, which is not surprising given that it tries to incorporate so many simultaneous subplots. The main plot is frequently interrupted with short stories whose relevance is sometimes unclear, even by the end. There is, for example, a three page story about a man who collects keys. Though keys are a prominent symbol in the book, the book never revisits the key collector. In this instance the story serves to clarify the meaning of the symbol, but doesn’t advance the plot. These ambiguous interludes are stretched out across nearly five-hundred pages, making it nearly impossible to keep track of relevant characters and plot points.
This unfortunately also produces many underdeveloped side characters, like the key collector, who disappear as effortlessly as they’re introduced. One could overlook this if the main characters were complex and memorable enough, but even Zachary seems to just be along for the ride rather than an active participant in the action. He meanders between whimsical tales without any real purpose aside from a desire to continue the story. “The Starless Sea” has all the warning signs of a bad book.
However, I still found myself eager to continue, to find out about what subsequent wondrous adventure Morgenstern had in store for me. This is a book one can enjoy if one lets go of the need to make sense of it and gives in to its elegant chaos. The beautiful prose works to construct incredibly rich and imaginative worlds. For instance, the shores of the Starless Sea, the place the book is named after, houses entrances to the “labyrinth” of stories that Zachary traverses. This physical location is described in a manner that mirrors the interconnectedness of literature as a whole, a major theme of the book. Morgenstern can build this intricate image and just as easily transition to a chapter about a dinner party or an intimate conversation between lovers. “The Starless Sea” is, in short, a spectacle.
When reading it, one feels a sense of nostalgia for a time when reading was for its own sake. The sheer imagination of Morgenstern’s stories combined with the sense of familiarity brought by the incorporation of classic literary motifs take you back to a time when you sat in bed late at night, effortlessly engrossed in book after book. Reading “The Starless Sea” is a bittersweet experience. It evokes the feelings associated with reading a truly great book without being a great book itself. It summons nostalgia for the childlike sense of wonder that many once felt when reading. Yet, like all forms of nostalgia, the feeling is fleeting. It’s like a diet Coke or a decaf coffee. You know exactly what it’s supposed to be and, therefore, exactly what you don’t have. Readers of “The Starless Sea” are similarly left wanting the real thing. Its value is in the evocation of the experience of reading without expectation, of reading simply to read.