"Peter Byerly," he said. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir." "Two things you should know about life here in Special Collections, Peter. The first is you are welcome to handle anything, as long as you handle it properly. The second is that I am not called sir, I'm called Francis."
"Okay. Thank you?.?.?.?? uhm?.?.?.?? Francis," said Peter, feeling awkward at the sudden familiarity. He turned his eyes away from the librarian and back to the book on the table. "So how could something as old as the first edition of Hamlet be newly discovered?" he asked.
"People are finding lost books all the time," said Francis. "Scholars didn't even know the bad quarto existed until eighteen twenty-three. We thought there were only two copies until this one turned up in a theological library in Switzerland. No one had taken it off the shelf in a couple of centuries, so no one knew it was there. We bought it privately last month."
"That must be something to discover a book that nobody's ever heard of or that everybody thought was lost."
"It's every bibliophile's dream," said Francis, and Peter knew in a second that it was his own. He could imagine nothing more glorious than finding some lost literary treasure - the manuscript of some unknown Shakespearean play or perhaps an edition of Hamlet earlier than the one he had just held - and preserving it for the world. Even the remote possibility that such a thing could happen brought a surge of adrenaline to Peter's veins.
"Now," said Francis, "how soon can you extricate yourself from circulation and begin work here?"
"You mean I got the job?" asked Peter.
Francis pulled a pair of white cotton gloves from his pocket and slipped them on as he spoke. "Peter, you either are or you are not a rare bookman. I can't change that. You felt the power of this." He picked up the Hamlet quarto. "Most students just see an old book, but you felt its deeper significance. You don't choose this career; it chooses you. Now, I can help you and I can teach you, but know this - after today you will never look at books the same way again. Nothing I do or don't do will change that."
Peter sat quietly for a moment gazing at case after case filled with books and considering the fact that each of those books might provide him with the sort of emotional jolt he had received from the Hamlet. He felt like an addict who has just discovered an endless supply of the perfect drug. Francis slipped the Hamlet onto a shelf in a case surmounted by a bust of Cleopatra. "All the Elizabethan imprints are here in the Cleopatra case," he said. "It was Miss Devereaux's favorite part of the collection. This is her First Folio." He indicated a tall, thick volume lying on its side on the top shelf of the case. You'll enjoy it, I think."
"Why are there busts on all the cases?" asked Peter.
"Ah, you noticed that, did you," said Francis, smiling. "A tribute by Miss Devereaux to her most admired collector. You see, Miss Devereaux also dreamed of finding an unknown treasure, and she had great respect for those collectors who had saved a piece of culture for future generations. Did you know, Peter, that it was because of a book collector that you were able to read Beowulf in your freshman English class? One man saved the only known manuscript of the first great English poem. And he saved a lot more than that. Gawain and the Green Knight, the Lindisfarne Gospels, some of the greatest treasures of the book world. His library in London was divided into fourteen bookcases, each with the bust of a Roman emperor or imperial lady above. Miss Devereaux asked me to organize this room the same way."
"Who was this collector?" asked Peter.
"He was one of those who, as you say, might have known Shakespeare personally. His name was Robert Cotton."
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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