Saturday, July 21, 2012


This week I read Lev Grossman's Codex (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004), an novel about an investment banker (Edward Wozny) who gets pulled into a mystery surrounding a lost medieval book. When asked to organize the private library of a duke and duchess during his vacation, all for the sake of finding a lost Middle English codex, Edward's interest is piqued, and he soon seeks the help of a graduate student (Margaret). Running parallel to this plot is Edward's increasing fascination and obsession with a reality-based computer game and the world of computer gamers who play it. As the novel moves forward, Edward's various worlds (work, library cataloguing, social connections, computer gaming) collide and intertwine, leading him further into several layers of intrigue. Akin to Umberto Eco's novels, Codex was a fun read, a quick read, and a novel I would recommend.

There were many details of the book that resonated with me as a graduate student, and as a medievalist. Grossman's descriptions of sorting through stacks of old books for mysterious treasures, working in archives, the anxiety of scholarship and coming up with only more questions when answers are expected, the excitement of new possibilities in a lost work that could someday be found--all of these captured me, because I've also experienced them.

On the other side of the story, I also felt a personal connection with Edward's forays into the tech-world of cyber-gaming, social networking, and digital data. The book gives a sense that the real and digital worlds collide, and they are often difficult to unwind. While the novel was published in 2004, this is all the more true of our present culture, and I felt a distinct connection between the two plots as all-too-prescient for how we interact between various networks across our spheres of life. The book certainly made me think of the intersections of scholarship and life with the ever-growing field of "digital humanities." I especially found it appropriate since so much of my scholarship and scholarly life is conducted via the many networks of the internet--including the digital societies of, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

I'll end this post with one of the most resonant passages, Grossman's first description of Edward's thoughts while sorting through the library of of the duke and duchess:
But there was something magnetic about them, something that compelled respect, even the silly ones, like the Enlightenment treatise about how lightning was caused by bees. They were information, data, but not in the form he was used to dealing with. They were non-digital, nonelectrical chunks of memory, not stamped out of silicon but laboriously crafted out of wood pulp and ink, leather and glue. Somebody had cared enough to write these things; somebody else had cared enough to buy them, possibly even read them, at the very least keep them safe for 150 years, sometimes longer, when they could have vanished at the touch of a spark. That made them worth something, didn't it, just by itself? (57)

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