“Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.
But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library’s manuscripts, Arthur’s tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books and a fellow Grail fanatic.
Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral’s founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany’s search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves.”
I think that the most important thing to realize about this novel is that it is a love letter to books. Lovett’s description of being in an old library is filled with sensual details–the quality of the silence, the scent of the ancient manuscripts, the way the light falls through the windows. I defy any book lover to read some of these passages and not feel an aching need to head for the nearest library, just to spend some time hanging out. To the author, a former antiquarian bookseller, the printed volume is something to be cherished and celebrated, and it truly shows in his writing.
That being said, Lovett isn’t shy about tackling the digital divide that sometimes seems to separate readers. It’s obvious that his sympathies lie with physical books; however, he acknowledges that digital has its place and its purpose. More than anything, I feel that this novel was advocating for both to exist harmoniously in the modern world. It’s hard to deny the appeal of holding a book in your hands, turning the pages, connecting with all those who read it before you; by the same token, the ability to search centuries of knowledge with the click of a mouse has revolutionized our intake of information.
Those centuries of knowledge are on full display here, as the author slyly leads you through the story of the protection of books–and of their suppression–throughout British history. The Viking raids, the depredations of Oliver Cromwell’s troops, and the simple march of time, all contribute to the story of the titular manuscript. Although the cathedral and town in this novel are fictional, the things that happened to the characters that populate them were all too real, and it makes me glad to know that people over time have sacrificed so much to protect knowledge.
I will warn you, though, not to expect a grand, Da Vinci Code style adventure. Arthur and Bethany’s quest is that of the scholar, putting together clues and doing much of their traveling through the medium of the printed word and their imaginations. But to me, that made it more realistic. While there is certainly room for adventure in today’s world, it’s increasingly in the library or the lab that discoveries are being made. It’s only near the end of the novel that you get a taste of the hidden passages and lonely crypts that Indiana Jones would be familiar with, and it is all the more fun because it wasn’t overdone in the preceding pages.
I also appreciated that the reason for leaving behind a puzzle instead of clear directions to what is being sought is a logical one. In other novels, I’ve often thought “There’s no need for anybody to have gone to this much trouble!”, but this one doesn’t fall into that trap. Again, it’s the realism that helped this novel to shine. Armchair treasure hunters, take note: one day, this could be you!
For someone like me, who loves books and libraries and all the wonders you can find in the printed word, this book was its own kind of treasure. I foresee reading this one many times over the years. The only thing that I didn’t like?… Barchester Cathedral and its lovely library isn’t real, and now I yearn for a place to which I can never go.
This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)