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Like a Treadmill

Musing Mondays2

What is the last book you struggled to read through to the end, even though you weren’t really enjoying it? What made you keep reading?

About two weeks ago, on top of my regular workout and yoga, I began a self-paced program called 100 pushups. The goal of the 6-week program is to achieve doing 100 pushups. The key is to do small sets of incrementing repetition to build strength and endurance over time. I fall into the middle in the diagnostic test—to do three reps of 6 to 7 pushups over 10 minutes. Anyway, this mirrors the same approach to read the recent Ex-Libris by Ross King, a historical novel set in 17th century England, just on the heels of the Cromwell upheaval and civil war. Although well-written, it’s soon after I opened the book that I realized the twists and intrigues were larger than the story itself. What little dismay that the book is no more than the author’s solicitude in background history doesn’t put me off reading it. The fascinating history, in fact, the constant conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics, Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s satellites, Spain’s colonial expansion, nautical charts and map-making—lures me to read on, but in measured portions. Somehow I get lost in reading digression in history, knowing the bottom of the so-called mystery probably won’t amount to a significance. It’s like turning up the grade on the treadmill, challenging myself to a more arduous run. The whole reading experience is like trekking briskly uphill to reach a destination that I incrementally demand better-be-worth-it with each trudging step. The history is far more engrossing than the story, and I enjoyed every moment. It’s like the treadmill: no pain, no gain.

[386] Ex-Libris – Ross King

” The library in Prague had become a Pandora’s box out of which, in the eyes of Rome, a swarm of evils was about to fly. ” (28:351)

Ex-Libris beholds a theme that readers, especially bibliophiles, find irresistible: a mystery in which books play in prominent role. It features Issac Inchbold, an unassuming bookseller bookseller as the protagonist who owns a shop in 17th century London. Sealed off from the conumdrums of the world, his cloistered life is shattered one day, when mysterious Lady Machamont summons him to recover a secret manuscript on which the political and religious turmoil hinge. A parallel story, some 40 years preceding Inchbold’s time, also unfolds as Emilia, a lady-in-waiting to the young Queen of Bohemia in 1620, who flees the destruction of Prague with the treasure-trove of books from Prague Castle, as Rome becomes weary that Protestants have wielded too much power.

There was nothing so dangerous to a king or an emperor, he went on, as a book. Yes, a great library—a library as magnificent as this one—was a dangerous arsenal, one that kings and emperors feared more than the greatest army or magazine. (5:57)

From the moment Inchbold accepts the commission, we follow him along on a complicated (fortuitous) mission to solve a mystery. He becomes target of sabotage and invisible forces of violence. The network of historical facts supporting the puzzle plot sometimes threatens to overwhelm it, as intrigues become more than the actual story. As Inchbold follows clues to London’s most disputable alleys and into chapel transformed into archives by overwhelmed royal functionaries trying to reassemble landholding records despoiled by Cromwell’s forces, he also stumbles upon pieces of rare editions of old books and book fragments. Reading about these rare classics is great fun but I can see why some readers would be frustrated if they were expecting a more straight-forward mystery. There is no shortage of revelations about the books concerned but the ending, which bear little relation to them, is rather anticlimactic.

A Pandora’s box has been opened which Rome is trying to slam shut by whatever means. Sorcery and magic now rank with dogmatic heresy. (23:287)

The book is well-written but I have mixed feelings about the resolution. Despite the unforgivable ending, which attempts to tie so loosely the million shreds that keep me plugging along, the book, with all the intricate details about manuscripts and binding, is worth the time reading. A refresher course in 17th century European history s recommended, but without it careful readers won’t feel they are missing intricate details of the story. In fact, these details, along with the fact that books were smuggled to rouse bands of defeated rebels and malcontents make me trek briskly uphill to reach a destination that I incrementally demand better-be-worth-it with each trudging step. Ex-Libris is full of facts and details, but the story could have been tied up better.

392 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


I have postponed reading Ex-Libris for years. It’s one of those books that stare at you from its place on the shelf but that you never pick it up. I have set my mind to read it despite the not-so-stellar reviews—because it revolves around restoring a magnificent library destroyed in the English Civil War back at Cromwell’s time. The author, Ross King, also earned enough credit in my book since I enjoyed Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. As in any historical fiction of which the period in question I’m not most familiar, this book would be somewhat of a hard labor.

Prague castle, seen from a distance, was an irregular diadem that perched on the craggy brow of a rock overlooking the wattled rooftops of the Old Town across the river. At dawn its window glinted in the morning sun, and at dusk its shadow crept across the river like the hand of giant . . . but through a succession of courtyards, then past a well-house, a fountain and a garden, stood what in 1620 would have been the newest and most remarkable of the castle’s buildings, a set of galleries known as the Spanish Rooms. . . . The books and manuscripts, among the most precious in Europe, were housed in the library of the Spanish Rooms, and at that time the castle’s librarian was a man named Vilem Jirasek. (5:47)

An antiquarian bookseller in London is charged with the task of recovering a manuscript that is related to the library at Prague Castle. This is more than a tease for me, not to mention the underlying mayhem and murder that were rife during English Civil War. I think it’s worth reading since it’s been compared to The Name of the Rose.

As for the weekend, I didn’t do much reading. I am still recovering from jetlag (more like my stomach is adjusting back to the meal time). I spent the day looking for an outfit that I’ll wear on my cousin’s wedding next Saturday. Since I’m neither in the wedding party nor a sibling, I can go a bit experimental and crazy. I’m deciding between smart-casual suit or something outrageously hip like a vintage reconstructed sportcoat. I don’t want to be super formal since I’m not the one who’s tying the knot and the wedding will be outdoor. Tentatively I have decided on a glossy myrtle green jacket with india green stripes. I’ll wear a white dress shirt inside without a tie.