I’ve found that one of the perks of working at a library is that it is easier to keep track of upcoming books. When part of your job is reading book reviews and keeping up-to-date to ensure you can perform reader’s advisory duties, it is quite easy to fill out your to-read list. While I grew my “Read” books list on Goodreads quite a bit in comparison to last year, my “To-Read” list is always growing. However, I’m woefully unaware of most books published before July 2013, except for a few bestsellers. That’s because before then I was working 50 to 60 hours a week as well as going to graduate school. When I had time to read, it was generally comfort reads, which means I was re-reading books I’ve read before and loved. These take no extra mental power and I am guaranteed to enjoy the experience. Not so with new books or new authors. Luckily for me, exploring the collection we already have is also part of my job, so I’ve been slowly adding to my to-read list every day. A recent review of Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions intrigued me, but I’m not a huge fan of Jane Austen so I hesitated. Luckily for me, one of my coworkers pointed out that his earlier novel focused on Shakespeare, whose writings I love.
The Bookman’s Tale was a beautiful novel that unfolds in a dual narrative that traces the life of Peter, a rare bookseller grappling with tragedy, and a rare book thought to be the basis of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and also one that might hold the key to prove who wrote Shakespeare’s plays once and for all. Peter overcomes personal loss, a family rivalry and murderous individuals to solve the mystery. Along the way we learn all the work, skill and love that goes into a well-made tome, from the hand-sewn pages to the carefully made cover, wholly unlike the mass-produced books we read in our own time. But more than these interesting explorations of bookmaking and Shakespeare, what I loved about the book was how real Lovett made his characters. Peter had such heart and drive, leading him to overcome his own insecurities and apparent agoraphobia to pursue his goals. His wife, Amanda, both when she was alive and as a ghost, encourages him to push himself to find happiness in a straightforward and lovingly snarky manner. His sidekick book publisher reminds him what it means to live and gives him someone new with whom he can connect. And the owners of the book, traced in anecdotes from the 1700s through the 1900s, all seem to be able to walk off the pages. Lovett’s short vignettes of these men are masterfully done, packing in interesting, believable details without slowing the plot.
I loved the flow of the narrative, even though it required jumping through different time periods, and the mystery behind the rare book. I loved the setting and characters, especially Peter. Peter is a broken man, who through his quest is redeemed, a story that will always be good. He actually reminded me a bit of Don Tillman from The Rosie Project. Plus, there’s nothing better than seeing an author’s passions come through in his novels, Lovett’s being rare books. I imagine Lovett had a similar experience to Peter, who is amazed when he’s given the chance to touch a rare folio of Shakespeare’s:
“Peter struggled to find the words to describe the experience of holding that book, turning those pages, reading those words printed while the author still lived and breathed and walked the streets of London. Until recently books had been only something to hide behind, then he had begun to see them as carefully crafted objects, but this was completely different. This was a revelation. This book was filled with history and mystery. Just being near it made Peter flush with emotion.” p. 20
The discussions of rare books and the setting partially in a special collections room at a university library led me to wonder about rare book librarianship. It is a thing, but requires extra schooling beyond the master of library science. Indeed, it might even include a bit more science than my own degree required. If you’re interesting in rare books, check out the Rare Book School, based at the University of Virginia. Beyond the information about attending the school, there is a great set of resources for exploring the world of rare books.
Anyway, I loved this book so much that I’m even willing to set aside my feelings about Jane Austen long enough to give First Impressions a try. I can only imagine that in Lovett’s hands, the stories of Austen will take on new life.