Library Column–May 9, 2005

Outside my windows the sky is blue and the sun is shining, but inside some of the quiet books sitting peacefully, innocently on the library shelves, sinister mysteries unfold…

Dan Brown revived a genre with The Da Vinci Code a modern novel exploring the secrets of the past. This immensely popular book has, of course, spawned imitators and has also brought about an expanded interest in historical books, fiction and non-fiction both. For example, we recently acquired The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code by Sharan Newman, an author who is both an accomplished medieval scholar and a successful novelist.

In the fiction arena, we have The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman, the tale of a valuable collection of artifacts, drawn gradually together by a sinister collector. The novel skips back and forth between past and present, weaving together the adventures of the protagonist, a young newspaperman, with the story on an ancient alchemist, a professor and a cluster of mysterious deaths. Brenda Rickman Vantrease has created a contrasting novel, but also centered on the creation of an extraordinary object. In The Illuminator we are totally immersed in the late Middle Ages in England. The book is a mixture of real historical figures and fictional characters, but superb writing brings the period to life in all of its violence, heresy and piety.

Two non-fiction books that combine historical mysteries with extraordinary artifacts come next. The first is The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World by a husband and wife writing team, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. They are rare book experts and do a wonderful job of tracing the history of a very strange manuscript, which may have been written by Roger Bacon. The manuscript, written entirely in a cipher which has defeated the efforts of the best cryptographers of the modern world, is illustrated with pictures of unknown plants and tiny naked people. The book bogs down a bit in the first section as the authors try to place Roger Bacon within the history of philosophy and science, but skim through to the last few chapters of the book (starting with the story of John Dee, the famous Elizabethan alchemist) and you will find a wonderfully odd and fascinating true story. The second of the pair is Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography: One of History’s Greatest Love Stories Retold: Including the Recently Discovered Lost Love Letters by James Burge. The story of Heloise and Abelard is one of the staples of tragic romantic love, but the recent discovery of a whole collection of their transcribed letters adds a startling new depth to what had become a stock medieval love story.

A few other variations on the theme: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime by Miles Harvey; Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel (author of Longitude); moving into the far distant past we have Mysteries of the Ancient World produced by the National Geographic Society and The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands by Nicholas Clapp; and finally, discussing the mysterious origins of Christianity, we have The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Enjoy and escape!

A quick note: we are hoping to build a DVD collection and donations of adult or children’s movies on DVD will be warmly welcomed. We would also love to receive more donations of books on CD (unabridged preferred). The Friends of the Warren Library will be selling books at the Farmer’s market several Saturdays this summer, so we will be accepting book donations through the end of August. Bring in hardcover or paperback books in good condition anytime the library is open. Thank you!

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