Everyone here at The Alabama Booksmith loves books – we are required to be “sicko book people” (Jake’s exact words). I’m certainly no exception, but in my case, that love is rooted in content, and builds from there: my first love is the text, the stories. In contrast, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett is the story an entirely different breed of bibliophile, one whose passion is for rare and antiquated books, where the book itself is just as important as the words within.
Peter Byerly, the titular bookman of the novel, is a young man of two all-consuming passions – his wife Amanda and rare books. The two are inextricably linked: he stumbled upon book collecting and repair as an undergraduate in an attempt to impress her, and this blossomed into his life’s pursuit. In a way, he is both blessed and cursed by the depth of his fervor – he has purpose and love, but he has very little to anchor him to life when Amanda dies and one of the two foundations for his very existence is suddenly swept away.
Quite literally drowning in grief, Peter relocates to England, using his love of rare books as a lifeline to rebuild his world without his wife. In the process, quite by accident, he finds a Victorian watercolor hidden in a treatise of Shakespearean forgeries – a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to Amanda.
This discovery sets him on the trail of what might be the most important literary discovery in history – undeniable proof that William Shakespeare did, in fact, write the plays attributed to him, and not some other individual – if the document in question actually exists, or isn’t a very clever forgery. In the process, he learns a great deal that was hidden about his own past, and regains his sense of purpose.
The story unfolds in tantalizing snippets and teasing snapshots, with so many links between past and present. It is told in a series of alternating timelines as it leads us to the riveting conclusions. The first narrative strand is Peter’s present day of 1995 as he searches for answers; the second begins in 1983, tracing the roots of Peter’s great loves, with antique books and with Amanda, showing us exactly what he has lost. Woven in between past and present is the story of this mysterious, mythical text with the potential to conclusively prove authorship of Shakespeare’s plays one way or another. Usually when I read a mystery, I’m content to sit and simply wait for the revelation. In rare cases, however, the lure of an intellectual puzzle is too much to resist and I start fitting the pieces together in my head, not content to be a passive reader. I was drawn into the narrative, trying to put the clues together, and yet found myself very much surprised by the ending.
While I don’t share Peter’s passion for antique books, I can understand it to a small degree. My only real experience with rare books and documents was in the Chapin Rare Books Library during my senior history seminar on the Civil War, where we were required to consult some of the primary documents available for our final paper. As a result, I spent a few memorable afternoons poring over bound editions of Harper’s Weekly – well, skimming really, except for those articles related to my topic. Even from that brief exposure, I caught a tiny glimpse of the magic that comes from handling original documents. I wasn’t even required to wear gloves – just thoroughly wash my hands, use a foam bookrest and under no circumstances write in pen.
The novel itself is a fun mish-mash of genres: a bit of fascinating conjecture, some lovely what-ifs into one of the greatest literary puzzles of all time. There’s a dash of murder mystery/conspiracy theory, on top of a very personal struggle. It is rightly subtitled A Novel of Obsession, as every single character grapples with consuming emotion, but Peter most of all. Passion and obsession are very much at work here, in all of the different eras and narratives, and the degree to which a person can channel and control their obsessions … or be controlled by it.
The basic premise of Peter’s find is one of fascinating conjecture – a lovely intellectual puzzle combined with very real danger for the characters. In a way though, reality, with its lack of concrete proof one way or the other, is almost more fun and leaves the field wide open for all kinds of possibilities. Obviously, a document that could conclusively prove authorship of Shakespeare’s plays one way or another hasn’t yet been unearthed – but isn’t it fun to imagine such a discovery?