By Nyambura Mutanyi

How many times have we walked into a bookshop-or encountered the roadside bookseller-and contemplated the lives of those that whet our appetite for books? Quite a number of people can pinpoint one book or other that has had a significant impact on their lives…like the bookseller in Ross King’s Ex-Libris.

A bookseller in seventeenth century London, he lives the staid life we think of as the inheritance of librarians and booksellers. When we first meet him, he doesn’t have the qualities that prepare one for the adventure that follows. The one thing that is curious about him is his love for old books-the story is pivoted on this curiosity. Isaac Inchbold is, by any estimations, no James Bond but the intrigue that ensues is well worthy of a thriller.

As with many adventures that men become embroiled in, there is a woman. Except this one is enamoured with books and tasks Inchbold with tracking down a book that was lost to her during the English Civil War. Inchbold, it seems, has been judged equal to the hunt and he thrusts himself into it with exceptional verve.

Cromwell was no lover of Royalists; and those under him were Philistines. Not my judgement, but rather that of the bibliophiles that people the pages of this book. Alethea, the lady that hunts for a particular book, has just returned from exile on the Continent. A titled lady of many fortunes, her father’s home has gone to seed and she seeks to reclaim its lost glory; much of it contained in his vast collection of books. His collection is the stuff of book-envy, it draws the lover of the written word in.

The book Inchbold hunts for turns out quite the stream of history. Spanning all of Europe, King paints a picture of its misadventures as it makes its way to England. Shipwrecks, battles of tremendous proportions and religious persecution form the stuff of its voyage. Alethea paints a picture of just what sort of people would want to possess it-the list does not inspire much joy in the heart of the protagonist. As he makes deeper forays into a world inhabited by ciphers, alchemists, forgers, and murderers; deception becomes his enemy and eventually his salvation.

King paints a riveting picture of Europe during a time when Rome could cause the rise and fall of empires. People now immortalised in science and thought are persecuted for their love of knowledge and forced to recant what we now think of as truth. As I read this book, I thought of the path of progress, how far the world has come as well as how future generations will judge the current one. Though Inchbold sets off in search of just one tome, his adventures forge a path through the indignities suffered by those that seek knowledge at the hands of those that seek fortune at all and any costs.

Reading this book feels like a visit to a delightful library where you discover books and make new friends in the process. It teases your intellect with its (sometimes) circuitous trips round the world and a universe created by books and the occult. Its ending came as a surprise but this book about books makes for an entertaining read.

Publisher: Penguin Group
Year published: 2002 (first published by Chatto and Windus in 1998)