Tom Rachman is a fabulous writer. I loved his first novel, “The Imperfectionists,” beyond reason. If you love newspapers and hate what’s happened to them, you will love this book.
“The Imperfectionists” is about an international newspaper based in Rome, and its long trajectory downward, from the days when it was bought as a rich family’s diversion to its inevitable decline in the age of the Internet. He tells the story through a series of interlinked character portraits, and what characters they are: The on-the-make foreign correspondent; the clueless intern; the money person who has been dispatched to shut the newspaper down and lay off all the employees. It’s a gallery of eccentrics, the like of which you seldom see now but which newspapers in their glory days tended to attract. It sounds sad and it is, (tragic if you love newspapers), but Rachman is a wonderful storyteller, as well as hilarious. He paints portraits that, believe me, have the ring of truth.
“The Imperfectionists” was about the love of newspapers – people who loved them so much they were willing to go down with the ships. “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” got me thinking about books that are about, well, bibliophilia, the love of books.
The first are a set of books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon. They feature a fantasy world inhabited by books, metaphysical characters (the Devil plays a prominent role) and lots of adventures.
The centerpiece of these novels is a place in Barcelona that he pretty much convinced me exists, or if it doesn’t, it should have. It’s a vast underground cavern called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which contains a huge library of obscure books maintained by those few initiated into the place. Once you’re initiated, you get to check out one book, and then you have to preserve it and protect it.
In the first book, “The Shadow of the Wind,” Daniel, a boy living in Barcelona just after World War II, selects a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and becomes completely engrossed in its story. But he can’t find any other books that have been written by the same author. So he sets out to find him, and them. He discovers a heartbreaking love story, matches wits with a murderous police inspector, and is introduced to the Devil himself. The love story/back story is set during the Spanish Civil War, and the Franco regime is the villain.
There are two more books in this trilogy. “The Angel’s Game,” and “The Prisoner of Heaven,” all set in Barcelona. Totally engrossing, and a hymn to the centrality of books in the imaginations of their readers.
A set of nonfiction books by Nicholas Basbanes explores the world of people who collect books, kind of a weird subset of people who love books. Why is it weird? These people revere the book as object, not just what’s in the books. They will buy a first edition of an author they love and never even crack it – I mean open it – for fear of causing even an infinitesimal amount of wear and tear.
Basbanes’ first book was “A Gentle Madness.” It explored the history of book collecting from antiquity forward. This ground has been covered before, but Basbanes tells his story well; and, as the extensive notes and bibliography show, he has done his homework. This book was published in the 1995, just as the Internet was beginning to transform bookselling and collecting. But it still has some indelible stories, such as that of Aaron Lansky, who dedicated himself to rescuing books in Yiddish.
Just last year Basbanes published “On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History.” It’s nothing less than the history of paper, from its beginnings in China 2,000 years ago to the way paper has recorded and shaped human culture and history.
Finally, I want to mention a couple of books about bookstores.
One is a novel, called “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan. This imaginative story tells the story of Clay Jannon, who has changed from a life as a web designer to a job in the aforementioned store in San Francisco.. But he starts noticing some strange things. Why don’t the customers ever buy anything? Why do they borrow from a set of large, mysterious volumes that Clay is told he can never read? Of course he doesn’t follow directions – he cracks open one of the books and discovers it’s written in code, and things take off from there. This is a very smart and imaginative novel about the love of books, the influence of technology on our lives and the ways that humans absorb knowledge, old and new.
Finally, I want to mention one of my favorite kids’ books – “Inkheart” by Cornelia Funke. It’s about Meggie, a young girl, lives with her father, Mortimer (called Mo), a bookbinder. Mo never reads stories aloud to Meggie because he has a special gift: when he reads a book aloud, the characters come out of the book and into the real world.
Of course, eventually he breaks down and reads a book called Inkheart, and some very nasty characters escape it. Meanwhile, Mo’s wife and Meggie’s mother get trapped in the book. This all makes for an exciting and very scary adventure – I guess it’s a metapahor of sorts about the power that stories hold over us.