On a dark and rainy October day in his sophomore year - he would later tell her the exact date, October 14 - Peter Byerly wheeled his cart into the reading room and first laid eyes on the woman he would marry. She was sitting alone at a table, poring over a biography of William Morris. She sat ramrod straight, with her book propped on the table in front of her, her posture almost daring the work to get the better of her, while all around her students slumped with the weight of impending midterms. She wore, in place of the unofficial uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, an impeccably tailored black suit, with pleated trousers and a crisp white blouse. Not a strand of her shoulder-length black hair was out of place.
She was slim, though not as slim as most college girls aspired to be. She was tall, though not as tall as those girls whose height inspired envy among their peers. Both her figure and her stature were enhanced by the one quality completely lacking in most coeds but which she possessed in abundance - poise.
He did not at first see that she was beautiful?though it would not take him long to notice. What he saw was that she was different, that she seemed, like himself, to inhabit a world on the margins of Ridgefield University. She did not fit in, and this intrigued him, made him want to shout, Comrade!
Peter slid quietly into a chair at the edge of the room and pulled a book from his cart. For the next thirty minutes, he pretended to read, while watching her. Except to turn a page, which she did frequently, she did not move. At six o'clock she closed the book, put it on a pile of others, picked up the books and her red leather purse, and headed toward the exit. Peter followed. When she returned several of the books at the circulation desk, he swept them off the counter as soon as they had been processed.
Ten minutes later he was sequestered in the stacks perusing her books. In addition to the William Morris biography there was a book on the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, a volume of Edward Burne-Jones prints, and two volumes of the catalog of the annual exhibit at London's Royal Academy of Arts - 1852 and 1853. He glanced through the volumes of artwork and the Holman Hunt biography before re-shelving them. The Morris biography he slipped into his bag without checking it out. He wasn't sure what made him do it; for some reason he felt a need to illicitly possess a book she had read. He returned it to its shelf a week later, afraid that if she was as complex and multifaceted as Morris, she was way out of his league.
Over the next month he watched her for at least half an hour every afternoon. Her schedule was precise - she arrived at the library every day at two, spent fifteen minutes in the stacks, and read at the same spot in the reading room until six. She never varied her posture; she always wore smart clothes; she took notes with a fine pen in a black journal.
She read voraciously - biographies of Victorian artists along with poetry of the period and a smattering of history. She worked her way through the Royal Academy catalogs at the rate of one every two or three days. It was three weeks after he first saw her that he noticed, while shelving the volume for 1863, that the front cover of the 1865 volume was completely detached. He couldn't abide the idea that she should find it in such condition, so he carefully removed the book and its detached cover from the shelf and trekked up six flights of stairs to a sturdy wooden door marked CONSERVATION.
The brightly lit room into which Peter stepped looked as he imagined an autopsy room might -; but, instead of human cadavers, books lay on the counters in various states of disassembly next to neat lines of knives and piles of various kinds of paper. On a shelf to his left were a dozen or so beautifully restored books, some in leather bindings with gold decoration. The room was not a morgue, thought Peter, so much as an intensive care unit, from which all patients would one day be discharged, if not fully cured, at least substantially improved. A man in a white lab coat leaned over a strange sort of vice that held a disbound book. He was spreading something that looked like cold oatmeal on the exposed spine.
Excerpted from The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett. Copyright © 2013 by Charlie Lovett. Excerpted by permission of Viking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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