Recent reading: Codex by Lev Grossman

“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Yes, I can see that…what’s the title?”
“I already told you: Codex.”

How could any librarian not be drawn to a book whose title is Codex? It’s so meta! (For those who may never have taken a History of Books class, “codex” is simply a fancy word for what we would just call a “book” today – gatherings of pages bound together within a cover. But in ye olden dayes, the word “codex” distinguished that familiar format from a much earlier book format: the scroll.)

I had recently read a review for Grossman’s newer books — The Magicians and The Magician King — which are supposed to be like fresh meat for adults lamenting the end of Harry Potter. Anyway, I was browsing the Fiction section at the library, and of course the Magician books were all checked out, but the title of one of Grossman’s earlier books, Codex: A Novel (2004) book caught my eye.

Here’s the book’s official description, since quite frankly it seems silly to reinvent the wheel in that respect:

About to depart on his first vacation in years, Edward Wozny, a hotshot young investment banker, is sent to help one of his firm’s most important and mysterious clients. His task is to search their library stacks for a precious medieval codex, a treasure kept sealed away for many years and for many reasons. Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex-to understand its significance to his wealthy clients, and to decipher the seeming parallels between the legend of the codex and an obsessive role-playing computer game that has absorbed him in the dark hours of the night. [From the entry on Amazon.]

I was still interested after reading the description, and so I decided to take it home with me — er, checking it out first, of course.

I was not disappointed. Similar to how Grossman’s The Magicians is being compared to Harry Potter, I would compare Codex to The Da Vinci Code. As in, if you liked The Da Vinci Code, I think you’d probably like Codex. If you enjoy a good mystery/thriller that is going to have its characters talking about history, books, and traipsing through an archives or two, then I think Codex is probably for you.

I was delighted any time the narrative described an archives or a bunch of old books — which was often — so I frequently found myself nodding and chuckling, as Grossman clearly knows what he’s writing about.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book — no spoilers — with page numbers from the 2004 Harcourt hardcover edition:

It was at the bottom of a tall stack of books, but before he could offer to help she picked them up and shifted them to the floor in one practiced motion. The books left a ladder of dusty smudges up the front of her dress, but she didn’t seem to notice. (pg. 109)

(Yep. Been there.)

“Do you know what happens to books like these once they’re sold?… They’re disbound. Dealers dismantle them, cut them up and sell them off page by page because they’re worth more money that way. Do you understand? They’ll be gone forever. Dead. They’ll never be reassembled.” (pg. 123)

(Sad but true. However, I was reminded of Micah Erwin’s presentation at the Preserving our Cultural Heritage conference in March, in which he described a project aimed at virtually reassembling medieval leaf collections, using social technologies such as Flickr. It was extremely intriguing.)

“…he imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings, nibbling away steadily after some arcane piece of knowledge in the hope of making an addition, however imperceptible, to the collective pile.” (pp. 205-206)

(I had to chuckle at this, recalling the massive pile of research I had assembled when trying to figure out my “little Quaker love story” a few weeks ago. And you should see all the papers I have piled up on my book cart as I do background research for the entire Forrer-Peirce-Wood collection. I am completely guilty of the guinea-pig-buried-in-its-wood-shavings syndrome, but I’m happy when I’m in there.)

At one point, a litany of book conservation supplies are described, and I just couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear as I read, thinking, I actually know what most of that is for!

I won’t spoil the ending for you. No spoilers here. But I will say that I was surprised at the ending and not quite sure how I feel about it. 

Nevertheless, it was an awesome book, and part of me wants to read it again, just to catch all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around. I might save it in the back of my mind for a re-read again soon, but for now I have other books that need reading. And I need to return my copy of Codex to the library, so someone else can enjoy it.


3 responses to “Recent reading: Codex by Lev Grossman

  1. Came by for a visit.


  2. I like the sound of it! Of course I will be lost in half the terminology, but I will enjoy the googling 😉

    Also, unbound and sold piecemeal? God that’s depressing.

  3. Pingback: The Inner Circle, an Archivist’s Tale | Glancing Backwards

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