People of the Book is about the attempt by a skilled book conservator, Hanna Heath from Australia to preserve in as pristine a condition as possible a very famous mauscript which gives the history of people of the Jewish faith in Sarajevo during the middle ages. Sarajevo is under near war conditions at the time. Part of her job is to trace the history of the illuminated book, to find out as much as she can about where the book has been in the last 500 years or so. In her examination of the book she notices an insect wing, a wine stain, a cat hair and a saltwater stain. From these clues she is able to reconstruct the paths the book has taken all over Europe. The story line then goes into a narrative about other people who have had the book. We go back to Sarajevo in 1940 and see the heroic efforts it required to keep the Nazis from burning the book I confess I did not know that the Nazis had employed a large number of people lead by "art experts" to seek out and destroy Jewish artifacts. Thousands of amazing old books were burned. We go back to Vienna in 1894, portrayed as a period of decadence. Each "flash back" section of the book is interleaved with current events in Hanna's effort to conserve and understand the book. We also see her interactions with museum directors, other book conservators and her very brilliant neurosurgeon Mother. Her mother looks on Hanna's profession as a waste of brain power. We also get to know about and see some of Hanna's love live. We go to Vienna in 1609. We go inside a harem in Seville in 1480.
Along the way we learn a lot about the art of book conservation. We learn how illuminated books were made. I was fascinated by the account of how the hairs of Persian Cats had a role to play in the creation of the Sarajevo Haggadah. ( I do not know if these and other details are correct but they sounded plausible throughout.) She makes skillfull use of historical detail. The level of research goes way beyond simply watching a couple of History Channel programs.
Some of the "flash back" sections did seem to go on a bit long. At times I sort of wished the character of the mother could be deleted as it did not add much to the story and was kind of a distraction. At times I also felt Hanna's quarrel with her mother sort of humanized her a bit so it was not a big negative for me.
People of the Book tells us some things about the reading life of those who collect books as artifacts. People read to get historical information to help them appreciate books as art objects. They feel a continuity with other owners of old books.
When I read of Hanna's attempt to trace the previous owners of the book I could not help but recall when a few years ago I found in a second hand book store a large number of the early volumes of the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. A number of the books were over 50 years old. They had a lot of character. To me they were beautiful. On the inside cover of each of the twenty or so books was written, in what looked like a very old hand, the letter numbers that a previous owner of the book had liked most. I still wonder who that might have been. I imagine the person treasured those books for many years then one day somebody took them to a second hand book store. The book store clerk told me they had been on the shelve there for many years. As I left the store I saw her call the manager over to point out the person who for some clearly senseless reason had at last bought these books.
People of the Book is entertaining, makes good use of historical research and teaches us a lot of things we might not know too much about. The author has written two other historical novels, for one of which she got a Pulitzer prize.