That Time J.J. Abrams Hid a Book in Boston

by Joseph Tavano

And the quest I went on to find it.

I love riddles. I always have. I was a curious kid–the type who had to look things up in dictionaries and encyclopedia volumes just to sleep at night. I soaked up trivia like a sponge, and had a decent memory for things other might forget. It’s a fairly useless skill, unless you run a retro website or really, really like Jeopardy, but there are a few times in my life it has come in handy.

One such time was just last month. Just before Christmas, I was trolling Twitter and I found a curious video from Bad Robot, the legendary production company of J.J. Abrams. I tend to focus in on what Bad Robot is doing; after all, this is the place where some of my favorite television and film has come from (read: L O S T, upcoming Star Wars), so when they have something to say, I am want to listen.

However, this Twitter message was different. It was a video touting the book S., by J.J. and author Doug Dorst. I vaguely remember hearing about S., but must have missed its release. It was at the tail end of 2013, buried under Star Wars news and speculation. I’m not sure how it did sales-wise, but it was something truly unique that received rave reviews. S. attempts to be more than just a standard literary experience. It is bound in a slipcase and sealed in plastic, and if one were to read the spine of the published book itself, it does not even say S. The book inside is called “Ship of Theseus,” and crafted to look like a decades-old library edition, and one that has had its share of time in the stacks. The inside covers are stamped, the dust jacket is missing, and there are hand scribbles notes on virtually every page.  Also, there are postcards, notes, and other affects between the pages. The book looks like it has been well traveled, and well loved. There’s a meta-story here, in the margins and the scraps, and the story of S. is both the book, and the writing around the book. There are mysteries on the page and off the page, as if a former reader may actually be out there. It’s a fascinating experience, similar to another groundbreaking book I read a few years back, but also very close to the experience I had with the Lost ARGs.

Needless to say, this sort of thing piques my interest. So, anyway, the video:

You gotta admit, J.J. has style. What a great idea, right? It’s the type of thing that bibliophiles like me just fawn over. The years and years of voracious reading not only imparted to me tons and tons of useless knowledge, but a sincere appreciation for the book as an object. Even today, I collect rare books, but more often I love to find a beat up sci-fi paperback with some real character. I’d rather find a beat up Heinlein or Asimov with crazy artwork on the cover at a used book store than bring home the deluxe anniversary hardcover edition at a Barnes & Noble. The former just has a quality that the latter can never obtain.

So you see, I had to find this book.

The first city to have a book hidden was New York. It was found in just a few hours and it seemed rather inevitable. Surely, there must be plenty of people following the tweeted clues and looking for it. Author Doug Dorst promised the next day would be much more difficult.

Great. We all know what lengths J.J. Abrams will go to if he wants to make his clues difficult to figure out. At thus point I’m thinking, “I’m screwed at actually winning this, but hey, it’ll be fun to play along on Twitter and guess. It’ll be like when you solve final Jeopardy at home, with just as rewarding of a prize! “

Tuesday came.

  Let’s do this.


A flurry of activity hit the Twitter feed. People were sharing thoughts, collaborating on ideas, working together to solve the puzzle. I heard from people on both sides of the Atlantic, and a couple on the Pacific as well. However this was a puzzle best solved with local knowledge, and, having lived in Boston my entire life, I had plenty.

The easy part: 1, 4, 9 16 is a sequence of square numbers.
The harder part: Boston is a city with many nicknames, and its neighborhoods have nicknames, and those nicknames have nicknames. The city of squares is a rarely used but unmistakable colloquial nickname for Cambridge, Massachusetts. So, the area in which the book could be hidden became much more targeted.

(To everyone reading this who may be saying, “Hey! Cambridge isn’t part of Boston! WTF! Yeah, I know. I called foul immediately. But the book had already been hidden, there wasn’t any going back now.)


  The next clue came down, and it was a head-scratcher.


What?! Ok we’re dealing with a landmark…a monkey-themed landmark in Cambridge that will direct us to [Encrypted word]. Or so I thought. Initially, I ran with the idea that the “monkey” was the Curious George store in Harvard Square, a long time landmark and tourist destination. Makes sense, right? All I had to do was figure out that code. But, after quickly exhausting all my ideas on that front, I was stumped. Someone else would likely figure this one out, and if they didn’t share their findings, I’d be out of the race.

Finally, Dorst provided the next clue:


  A simple right click on the image in Chrome gave me a reverse image search that produced some interesting results.     Vigenere reverse search   Now we’re getting somewhere! Time to find a Vigenère cipher and hit it hard, because without a doubt others are doing the same. I found this somewhat random site, and the decrypted message proved to be interesting.     decrypted ciper   It’s Cambridge–in a sense, the entire town is a home for engineers. But, we’re talking about something much more specific. The Engineers are the name for the sports teams of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT is the home of the Engineers. The book is on MIT’s campus. But, this won’t be too easy. Take a look at the campus map.     Search map     On to the next clue.


Weird. If you search the words hippie clown, the first result will be this guy, Wavy Gravy, a 60s counter-culture figure. “Reversing himself” give us the phase “Gravy Wavy. ” This brings us no closer to the next location though. How does this phrase spend two fives? What is the marker here, the giveaway? Is it 55? Is it 10? I was stumped, until I received a suggestion: Roman numbers. Then, “spending,” or removing two Vs would reveal the answer:

Gray Way.

The target is getting smaller by the minute at this point. Surely, the book will be found soon. Only problem? There is no Gray Way to be found in Google Maps at MIT.

Maybe the previous clues were misread? Maybe there is a different home for engineers in Boston? Was the city of squares really Cambridge in this case? Boston proper has a lot of squares. Somerville too. My mind was spinning in circles, until I retraced my steps, and took a deep look at the MIT campus map. I love to look at maps, and can scan them for hours, taking in every detail and precise piece of information. But there was no Gray Way easily found on this map…until I found a weird aberration in the lower right corner. Zooming in, I found the following:




So there WAS a Gray Way at MIT! It is just such a small passage that it is barely listed. At this point, Twitter was roiling with excitement. Other people had found Gray Way, too, and people were on their way over to the campus now. At this point, it was a matter of logistics. There was no way I could even get from the North Shore of Boston down to MIT in time to retrieve the book, even if I figured out the remainder of the clues. But, I was having too much fun to stop now.


  Simple. The Hayden Memorial Library, right at the end of Gray Way. The book must be somewhere among the stacks, hidden in plain sight. The dominoes start to fall.


Pollux…one of the mythical Gemini twins, whose sibling was Castor! It should stand to reason that there MUST be something related to the constellation of Gemini on campus, or to Castor directly as a mythical figure. Something!

A quick Google search for Castor MIT reveals this, the MIT Satellite Team, and their project–CASTOR, (Cathode/Anode Satellite Thruster for Orbital Repositioning). The project was a few years old; there must be something relating to the project in the library. And, if we look down at it, as we would with “humble gaze,” the final location will be revealed.

The final clue:



Easy. This is an excerpt from a poem by Ogden Nash. The book must be in the library among the Ogden Nash section!! Now, if only I could get over to MIT to check it out. But, I was stuck on the North Shore until 5:00 pm, and after fighting rush hour, the book would surely be found by then. And people tried. There was one report that someone who went to the library, searched the Ogden Nash section and found nothing. They thought maybe someone had found the book and taken it without any notice. I double checked with Dorst on Twitter to see if this was the case. And, according to the account, there was no CASTOR satellite at the library. By this time it was already evening, it was starting to rain, and it was cold outside. With no new leads, and most of the buildings at MIT closing for the evening, the search was over for now. Besides, my wife informed me that  we needed to go food shopping that evening.

But, before we left, Dorst got back to me on Twitter. The book was still out there; it had not been claimed.

This hunt had gone on much longer than anyone expected. Bad Robot had one search planned for every day! This was going off script, for sure. However, by the end of the night, the people collaborating on theories on Twitter had dwindled to just a handful of people, and barely any of them in Boston. The book was still out there, and no one seemed to know where it was. I still had a chance, if I could figure out what everyone else could not.

I hit Wikipedia. I read everything I could about MIT’s campus, looking for clues about Gray Way. I found virtually nothing. I read all about Castor in mythology, the CASTOR sattelite–I even read up on castor oil! And that damnable “L” still remained. Was it the library? Was it something else?? I discovered an L labs on campus, seemingly on the same street..but it wasn’t near the words “Gray Way” on the map–it was down a few blocks. Could Gray Way be much longer than expected? There were too many questions, and I had too few answers. If I could just get there in the morning, before anyone else got to it, I may be able to figure out the final clues. Maybe there was some physical marker I would find.

That night dragged. I lay in bed, going over the clues in my head. Walk into L, seek Pollux’s Twin. Walk into L. Walk into L. There was a building on Gray Way. Walk-er Mem-or-iaL? Could that be it? Just an alliterative link? It felt tenuous. But, could that really be it? I wouldn’t be able to tell until I go down there. I had to take this opportunity. It was just sitting there all night. I could do this.

Early the next morning, I dropped my wife off at work and headed into Cambridge. I couldn’t help but smile. I got this.   When I got to MIT campus, it was early, it was cold, and there were very few people around. Finals week–of course. All at once I felt very, very out of college. I had been on MIT campus before, but it was a while ago. I didn’t feel all too scholarly in my thirties, and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. Whether that was real or not, I’m not sure, but I wasn’t going to just walk into any old MIT building. It felt like no one even knew the book was somewhere around here. That was probably true, and that would mean I’d find no help either. And, if I was going to walk into any of these buildings, I’d better make it count.

Gray Way turned out to be a footpath, just a few hundred feet long and visible from Memorial Drive and the Charles River. In the area were a few nondescript buildings, tennis courts, an outdoor sculpture or two and a lot of open space. The book wasn’t outside, that much was for sure. I walked down the street to the L labs building, but it just didn’t look right. It was secure, there was a desk–no place to lead anyone on a scavenger hunt. I headed back to the epicenter of Gray Way. I could try the library again, but to what end? The previous person who searched didn’t have the Castor clue, so it seemed like a dead end. That left the Walker Memorial Building.

Walk to the L.

Gray Way

Then something dawned on me. From my research the night before, I learned that the buildings at MIT weren’t numbered like normal buildings. Their address numbers were assigned in the order they were built, a system, many have joked, that could only make sense to an engineer. So, on a map, the number appear random, not tied to any street address.   And then it dawned on me. Walker Memorial Building was building #50. The Roman Numeral for 50 is L.

Walk to the L.

There was an unadorned back door to Walker Memorial right on Gray Way, with a bulletin board just inside. It seems this was a student activities building now, but from the looks of it was a very old building on campus. The type that was retrofitted with heating and electricity at some point way back.

Two steps inside I look down to find a mosaic of the school’s emblem in the floor. In the middle of the emblem was a beaver. The genus name for beaver is Castor, from the Greek translation. It was a completely different interpretation of the clue that anyone deduced. I was close. It was nearby.

Only one clue remained, and I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. As you may have already guessed, the Ogden Nash poem from which the last clue was taken from was titled, “A Flea and A Fly in A Flue.” I knew I was looking for a fireplace of some sort, and this was just the type of building to contain it.

From the beaver mosaic, I look to my left, and about five feet away stood a large fireplace, hollowed, clean and out of use for ages. I look inside, and up into the flue. There, nestled in some old wrought iron, was the book.


Oh yeah, did I mention it was SIGNED BY J.J. Abrams?!




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