BY SEAN CLARK

Author: Walter Moers

2007, Overlook

Filed Under: Literary, Fantasy, Young Adult

I bought this book off a remainders shelf years ago. I’ve since seen and bought other books by Moers on the same shelf. It’s a shame his books aren’t more successful or at least popular; this is a fun, playful book with a whole lot of charm. I suppose Moers’s low profile does make a bit of sense though: this is a book for a very particular reader. Off the top of my head, I could name 2 people I know who would love it, and at least 5 who would hate it.

It’s a thick book full of some big words, but also one of the lightest, most whimsical books I’ve read in a long while–one that places a lot of demands on the reader’s imagination. Readers looking for a dense, literary experience will be let down, as will those looking for a breezy adventure. Readers who like stuff balanced on the fulcrum of that seesaw, however, are in for a treat.

Moers’s world, Zamomia, is not a realistic world by any approximation. It is populated by fantastical dinosaurs, one-eyed goblins, shark-grubs, hog-men, and all sorts of other inventive denizens. The world itself is malleable enough to support the story at hand without needing further description. Dr. Seuss’s characters would be at home here. The City of Dreaming Books takes place in a city called Bookholm (other books explore elsewhere in Zamomia), a city literally built of books, where life revolves entirely around reading, producing, buying, selling, and discussing books.

Beneath the city are vast catacombs full of rare and priceless books, along with traps and monsters and magical books that live and breathe, and which are said to be ruled by the legendary Shadow King. Armored adventurers known as Bookhunters trawl through these depths, bringing to the surface rare books for sale and trade. It’s treacherous business though, and Bookhunters are more akin to brigands than adventurous treasure hunters.

Optimus Yarnspinner is a young Lindworm (a species of horned dinosaurs with vestigial wings), and as-yet unpublished author. When his “authorial godfather” dies, Yarnspinner inherits a rare manuscript by an anonymous author, so impeccably written one could never have read anything better. Manuscript in hand, Yarnspinner makes for Bookholm in search of its mysterious author.

A disillusioning series of mishaps unfolds, and Yarnspinner finds himself marooned deep in the catacombs, and it is then that the real adventure begins.

The cave’s numerous exits varied in size. Many were completely choked with books, but marching in through the others were whole armies of insects attracted by the sounds of the funeral feast. I chose a tunnel in which I could discern only a few books lying on the dusty floor and no loving creature save a long processions of jellyfish crawling along the roof, bound for who knew where.

Moers’s novel is for readers who are really into the idea of books, not just books as content but books as tactile and smellable objects. It’s for readers who obsess about collecting books, stacking and arranging them on shelves, and who (probably silently) judge others by the extent to which they do the same. There’s a lot of playfulness centered around books here, countless invented titles and authors (“Tiger in My Sock by Caliban Sycorax! The Shaven Tongue by Drastica Sinops–with Elihu Wipple’s celebrated illustrations!”) , and descriptions of tomes that border on prurient. In the same vein, there’s also a lot of cynicism about those same things. In this way, though the style and story differs greatly, you can easily draw lines to Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket.

Smyke gave me a look of entreaty. “The problem is this: in order to make money–lots of money–we don’t need flawless literary masterpieces. What we need is mediocre rubbish, trash suitable for mass consumption, More and more, bigger and bigger blockbusters of less and less significance, What counts is the paper we sell, not the paper written on it.”

The book is brimming with illustrations by Moers. I love the art in these pages. The drawing look less like illustrations for a children’s book and more like pencil doodles that expanded from Moers’s margins and took on a life of their own–which makes them all the more fitting of the subject matter. Hardly a few pages go by without an drawing. They are great.

This is a novel I wish I had read as a twelve-year-old tucked into a nook in the local library. I still enjoyed it at twenty-eight, but the kind of magic this book conjures really requires a younger imagination less bruised by reality to fully appreciate. If you’re looking for a light, playful adventure chock-full of bookish jokes and fun doodles, you’ll probably like this book; if you know a young reader who enjoys those things, they definitely will want to give this a read.

Similar Reads: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Rowling), The Book of Lost Things (Connolly), The Graveyard Book (Gaiman)