Book lovers can delight in a novel that lets them enjoy everything about the world of writing, from the spark of an idea to the crumbling pages of an ancient tome. The City of Dreaming Books is all that, and more.
The book begins with a challenge from the narrator: if you're up for a thrill ride, come along. Otherwise, you cowards, put down this book and go get something tame and manageable. Who can resist such a challenge? Certainly not me.
And so I ventured forth into Walter Moers' imagination. Boy, am I glad I did! For anyone who loves books, it is a fabulous read, full of book-love, adventure, surprises, wonderful characters and page after page of books.
I will add one caveat: it feels like a long read. So much happens that one feels as though it never will end. However, that is not a bad thing. We learn a lot, and the narrator offers enough asides to keep the reader in the know about this strange new world. It is rip-roaring fun, with enough adventure and enough occasional catch-your-breath moments that the pace is manageable.
Oh, and it's funny. Very funny.
Moers wrote the book in German (though he notes it was translated from the original Zamonian by him), so it feels a little heavier than a book originally written in English — but by no means is it cumbersome and dense. It's weighty, but one cannot experience Bookholm and all it offers any other way.
Moers does not introduce any frivolous material. Everything he puts in the book is important, from Optimus' reading of The Catacombs of Bookholm to a description of the streets and buildings of the city.
Optimus Yarnspinner, the authorial godson of Dancelot Wordwright (author of The Joys of Gardening), is at the bedside of the dying writer when Dancelot reveals a secret. No, not that he still sees himself as a cupboard full of dirty spectacles, but of the existence of the perfect manuscript. Upon reading it himself years ago, Dancelot told this anonymous author to go straight to Bookholm, the book and publishing capital of Zamonia, and have it published right away. Unfortunately, he never heard from the author again.
Dancelot tells Optimus to read it, but to not despair — use the manuscript as a launching point for his own life and literary ambitions. Optimus is a dutiful godson, and he does just that. And his life is never the same. After reading the manuscript, he packs a rucksack (thankfully after putting down his jelly sandwich) and heads straight to Bookholm to find this talented writer.
Bookholm is a wonderful, chaotic, frenetic, lovely place devoted to all things bookish, especially for Optimus, a writer who has yet to publish anything. It's like Manhattan, only Zamonian, and a joy to visit with Optimus.
Along the way, Optimus encounters a few booksellers to whom he shows the manuscript. They order him home directly (though the Ugglian can't help but prophecy about his fate). An agent directs him to the most respected antiquarian bookseller in the city. With calling card in hand, Optimus approaches Pfistomel Smyke's bookshop in the heart of the city.
The story doesn't end there. If anything, it accelerates, becoming even more interesting and entertaining (which is hard to believe, considering the book's strong beginning).
One of the best things Optimus does for his readers is discuss The Catacombs of Bookholm, a memoir by the most famous of Bookhunters, Colophomius Regenschein. It's fascinating, and you'll be glad you paid attention.
In the end, as The City of Dreaming Books comes to a close and you read every single page to the end (which you must, every single page, trust me!), you'll quietly savor the book for a moment before packing your rucksack like Optimus himself did and setting out for Bookholm. (Hopefully someone will be on hand to stop you before you venture too far afield.) Having been thwarted in that endeavor, you'll instead start seeking the Orm yourself and create something for the Fearsome Booklings.
Now, log off your computer this very moment and go get The City of Dreaming Books. You can thank me later.