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CodexThere were two excellent aspects to this book, and two not-so-excellent.

The first excellence was the highly detailed and very true-to-life descriptions of rare books, special collections and archives. In one scene the main character, Edward, visits a fictional rare book library in Manhattan called the Chenoweth. Poor Edward is flummoxed by everything he encounters: the numerous different catalogs (books here, manuscripts there, backlog in the other place; a third of their holdings in the electronic catalog, a third on little index cards, a third uncataloged entirely); reading room etiquette (he tries to talk to someone, can you imagine??); where the books live (only three bookshelves are visible, all full of books about books), and so on. "The whole operation was a model of mysterious, gleaming efficiency, like some incomprehensible ultramodern public restroom."

Plus there are student assistants wheeling squeaky carts, patrons at other tables looking at folders of letters, red velvet bookweights, a "serious little magnifying glass that looked like demilitarized Russian spy gear," and lots of very sharp pencils.

My archivist's heart was deeply, deeply satisfied by this, not to mention vastly amused. Later they go to the Chenoweth's offsite storage in Virginia where, three floors below ground, they find a fenced-off corner piled with dusty, broken-down, moldering boxes and cartons containing donations made long ago and never processed. This also made me laugh. (Thank god the velvet bookweights were red, not green, otherwise I'd suspect that he'd modeled his descriptions on my own workplace!)

The second excellence was the curious story-within-a-story: Gervase of Langford's weird and disturbing narrative, with its stag-headed knight, Mobius-strip storyline, and page covered in black ink. Margaret, the medievalist who helps Edward in his quest, explains how alien this kind of story would have been to the era in which it was written, in almost every way a complete anachronism. She also offers a brief but accurate history of how people's view of the purpose of writing has evolved in the last 500 years or so, including how suspicious people were of the idea of the novel and reading for pleasure.

So yay for the vivid descriptions of many wonderful old and rare books, and the delights of a hunt for a mysterious ancient manuscript.

Boo, however, for a gaping plot hole and an ending both disappointing and anticlimactic. [Spoiler (click to open)]The gaping plot hole is that no satisfactory explanation is given for how the Duchess knew what was in the Gervase of Langford book. If no one had ever seen it, and indeed most scholars thought it never existed, then how could the Duchess possibly know that it contained anything she could use to ruin her husband?? And if the events took place 700 years ago, who would possibly care?? The disappointment of the ending lies in the fact that (a) it all boils down to the cliche of an alcoholic and vengeful woman who wants to get revenge on her husband, for no reason we can see; and (b) Gervase's odd and fascinating tale turns out to be totally irrelevant, since all that matters are the illuminated capitals!! Most vexing.

That said, the two "boo" components didn't outweigh the fun I had with all the rare-book-and-archives lusciousness. If like me you love that sort of ambiance, you can still enjoy this -- just be prepared for a somewhat limp ending.


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Oct. 13th, 2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
It sounds mildly interesting....
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