I’d like to post a few titles every now and then of books that never really made it. I remember them because I happened upon them unawares, read them, became certain that they were culturally, genrely iconic (yes, I just made up a word), and sat them on my shelves for the future.
But the rest of the world disagreed.
We’ll start with Salamander, by Thomas Wharton.
This is a book for bibliophiles. It recounts the obsessive hunt of a bookmaker for the perfect ingredients for an infinite book. Nicholas Flood, the protagonist, is a printer of novelty books in eighteenth-century London. Commissioned by an eccentric nobleman to create the infinite book, the story follows his journey as he locates the ideal ink, the impossible pages, and the perfect binding for this ceaseless tome. Magic realism at its most magical and slightly less real, Thomas Wharton takes you on a delectable journey of pages and ink, mazes and romance, intrigue, impatience, and wonder.
When I first discovered Steampunk a few years ago, I thought, ‘This looks awfully familiar. Didn’t I see something like this in Salamander?’ Steampunk aficionados may disagree, but there are foreshadowings of the phenomenon locked in these pages. The count’s mysterious castle that opens and closes like a great puzzle box, the odd congruence of 18th century imagery with contemporary sensibility. Steampunk fiction is few and far between, so if you’re looking for something to tide you over till the next Scott Westerfield or Nick Valentino, look no further. Not that this quite fits in the canon, but you’ll appreciate it nonetheless.
I first found the book on a display table of paperbacks, back in the day when I would browse bookstores and actually buy books. I bought it for the front cover, which reminded me of two things: an Escher painting and The Phantom Tollbooth. The first is rather inexplicable, since the image – though mysterious and architectural – is by no means an optical illusion. It makes much more sense as a reminder of Norton Juster’s classic book for children, because the image of a castle in the sky features prominently in both. Come to think of it, both stories share several things in common, besides the imagery of floating edifices: a journey of learning and fantastical experiences, a reconciliation between the essential and the absurd, and… well, that might just be it.
I have a feeling I would get much more out of Salamander now than I did when I read it, some eight years ago. Perhaps that is because I am in the business of making books. More likely, though, it is because the appreciation of a book as an object grows more acute with the passing of time – at least, for an avid reader. And this novel is an homage to the book as an object. All the more pitiable should it be forgotten, add this to that reading list you have growing by the bedside. You will thank me.