Some readers have asked why I chose to set the modern story line in my novel The Bookman’s Tale in 1995 rather than in the present. There are two reasons really. One is that Peter’s adventures would have been completely different if he had had a cell phone and easy access to, say, Wikipedia. It’s very difficult to write a completely isolated protagonist post-2000. I wanted Peter, at times, to be cut off—from other people and from information.
But a more important reason for setting Peter’s story in 1995 is that I wanted him to inhabit the world of rare books and antiquarian bookselling before that world was taken over by the internet. Now, when I want to buy a rare book, I usually do it by going to a bookselling site online and running a search. I can quickly determine if there is a copy of the book I want for sale almost anywhere in the world. It’s quite efficient, but it’s also quite impersonal.
I wanted Peter to live in a world where people found rare books by looking through shelves and boxes and basements, where dealers kept want-lists in their heads while browsing the stock of other shops or digging through estates. I wanted the search for books to be, to Peter, a process that involved going out into the world and interacting with people. I wanted his relationship with bookselling to be sensory. I wanted him to smell the must and the pipe smoke in a bookshop, to see neat rows of spines on shelves or cluttered piles of new stock on the floor. I wanted him to feel cold metal shelving against his back or the supple leather binding of a book he had no intention of buying.
We used to have bookshops—places where you could browse and smell and see and feel. In bookshops you might meet likeminded people and pass a half-hour chatting about bibliography or printing or the weather. In bookshops you could have the pleasure of holding books that you couldn’t afford or that simply didn’t fit into your own collection.
Another wonderful thing about bookshops is that you often found books you didn’t know you were looking for. The internet is great if you know exactly what you need, but it’s not so good for browsing, or for stumbling across that book that you pulled off the shelf because the binding looked unfamiliar, only to discover a previously unrecorded blue version of the book that you already own in green and red.
I miss bookshops, and I treasure those that remain. I ran a bookshop myself for several years, so I know it’s not an easy life. Now that one can sell antiquarian books so easily online, why bother with the expense and trouble of operating a retail storefront? For those who do, I say thank you. And Peter Byerly thanks you as well.