The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

At first glance, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen isn’t exactly a book that brings to mind toe-tapping, rollicking good fun. The cover portrays the skeleton of a dinosaur, and the margins of the book contain all types of diagrams, maps and charts that you must read to fully comprehend the story. 

The author has designed the book in a way that requires you to experience the world of his main character and narrator, T.S. Spivet, through his words and his science. This is a great concept, considering T.S. Spivet is an aspiring cartographer who synthesizes the world through the maps that he creates. However, while a great concept, it is an eccentric flair that often makes for an arduous reading experience.

Yet, surprisingly, I would not have removed any of the maps or sub-text. The maps and sub-texts do exactly what they are intended to do; they help you understand how Spivet sees and feels about the world around him. The maps also make you realize that there are limits to what science can explain. (For examples of what they look like, check out the book’s interactive website.)

One of Spivet’s maps shows the distance a bullet travels, but it doesn’t show the heartache he feels from the loss of his only brother. A chart captures his father’s facial expressions, which Spivet interprets as disappointment, but it doesn’t explain that these expressions are his father’s struggle to express the overwhelming love he has for his son.

Outside of the maps and charts, Spivet’s story is actually a lot of fun, and at times, even moving. Spivet’s world is full of odd characters, mostly from his family, who take on the world with passion and flair. Spivet’s mother is bug scientist in pursuit of a rare tiger beetle.  Spivet’s sister is drama-queen vying for the day that she can leave and become an actress.  Spivet’s father is a rancher with a deep nostalgia for everything western and cowboy. He routinely quotes from the cowboy creed and relaxes in the family room that has been completely re-decorated with western and cowboy paraphernalia. 

Spivet’s brother, who we learn died from a gunshot wound to the head when a gun jammed and then back-fired, was also a cowboy enthusiast, and while he is no longer alive, his life and hole that it leaves in young Spivet's life permeates the story. 

Spivet feels like the odd man out since the death of his brother, who seemed to be the glue holding all these odd characters together. This realization drives Spivet to accept an invitation to travel to Washington, D.C. to the Smithsonian Institution to accept the Baird award for scientific research for some of his maps, even though he realizes the contact who invited him believes him to be an adult.

Spivet leaves without telling his family.  He hotwires a train signal light to make a train stop in his town and stows away on the train inside a Winnebago. Spivet arrives to accept his award and deliver a riveting speech on the importance of science. His journey, however, is not without mishap, high drama or revelation.

He is stabbed by a religious transient. He is party to a secret society for scientist beneath the Smithsonian. He discovers that his mother knew about his trip all along and that she respects and believes in him as a scientist. He discovers that his father doesn’t wish he was his brother and loves him just as much. 

You don’t have to be a scientist or fond of western trivia to love this story. You just have to be a person who roots for the underdog, loves adventure stories in the vein of Tom Sawyer, and is deeply moved by stories of loss and love.

About the Author

Sherida Harris is a library technical assistant at the Plaza Branch and co-leader of the Barista's Book Group, which meets every third Wednesday at 7 p.m. To join the Barista’s Book Group, e-mail her at or call 816.701.3481.