So Many Libraries, So Little Time

It’s no secret that I love libraries. My first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, was
partially set in a university library; First Impressions featured two spectacular private
libraries, and my new novel, The Lost Book of the Grail, is set in an English cathedral
library. Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time visiting libraries—to read, to do
research, to speak and sign books, and sometimes just to soak up the ambience that
only comes from a building filled with books.
Researching The Lost Book of the Grail was especially exciting, because it took
me to several cathedral libraries and gave me the chance to see books, manuscripts,
and other materials rarely on public display. At Hereford Cathedral, I found the
largest surviving chained library in the world. Before modern security measures, the
best way to keep readers from walking away with valuable books was to chain them
(the books, not the readers) to the shelves. As soon as I saw the rows and rows of
ancient volumes with chains dangling from their covers, I knew I wanted to include a
chained library in my novel. Those chains become problematic in the first scene, when
bombs are falling near my fictitious cathedral during WWII and members of the
community are trying to get the books to safety.
I didn’t visit the library at Canterbury Cathedral until after my book was
finished, but when I heard that the only part of the cathedral to be destroyed by
bombing during the war was the library, I realized my opening scene was even more
apt than I had thought. Luckily, at Canterbury most of the valuable books and archives
had been removed before the bombing raid. Inside Canterbury’s rebuilt library I saw
documents dating back to the Saxon period, a contract signed by Archbishop Thomas
Becket (murdered in the cathedral in 1170), and a 700-year-old musical manuscript
with words in Latin that I had sung myself just a few days earlier.
At Worcester Cathedral I spent a delightful couple of hours with one of the other
great treasures to be found in virtually every library—a librarian. I had signed up for
a tour, but when my wife and I arrived we discovered we were the only ones in the
“group.” Our guide showed us a tenth-century book still in its original binding,
manuscripts with graffiti drawn in the margins by monks hundreds of years ago,

medieval books on medicine and agriculture used by those living in the monastery
before the Reformation, and some of the earliest printed maps of Europe. Several of
the pieces she showed us made it into my novel in some form or other, but the most
valuable part of the experience was just spending time in a library that traced its roots
back a thousand years. While it’s true that I do some of my research online, there is
no substitute for spending time being physically present in the sort of space in which
I want a book to be set, and in this case Worcester Cathedral Library was the perfect
place to let the feel of such a space seep into me.
Whether I’m perusing shelves of vellum and leather-bound manuscripts dating
from before the time of printing, researching in a local archive, or just looking for
something good to read, libraries are a part of my work and a part of my life. In The
Lost Book of the Grail, Arthur and Bethany argue about the place of libraries in a
changing world, but there is one thing they agree on—libraries (and librarians) are
essential elements of our culture.
— Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail: A Novel
Viking | On-sale February 28, 2017 | 978-0-399-56251-8 | HC | $26.00/$35.00C