Search for Books
Trade Books Children's Books Future Releases Authors & Illustrators Reading Guides Catalogs
Between the Lines

Interview with Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman
A hot-shot young investment banker is sent to help one of his firm's most important and mysterious clients uncrate and organize a personal library of rare books . During the process he becomes obsessed with finding a medieval codex that may be hidden in the collection. His obsession deepens when he discovers surprising parallels between his favorite computer game and the mystery of the codex.
Lev Grossman is a writer and book critic for Time. He has written articles for the New York Times, Salon, Lingua Franca, Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York and the Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You draw upon a certain knowledge of rare books in Codex. Can you briefly describe how you acquired your knowledge?
A: In the summer of 1995, when I was 26, I lucked into a job at the Beinecke, which is the rare book and manuscript library at Yale. I worked as an assistant to one of the curators, and even though I was pathetically inexperienced, he obligingly sent me on various trivial (to him) errands to keep me occupied. Speaking as a bibliophile, I was in heaven. On any given day he might have me sort through William Beckford's letters, or make a list of the postmarks on Tennyson's wife's correspondence, or verify the proper order of the pages in de Tocqueville's manuscripts; or compile a list of the dedications in the first editions of Joyce's Ulysses...if you're at all vulnerable to the seductive power of books, and I was, it was like getting Willy Wonka's gold ticket. It was at the Beinecke that I first learned the term 'codex,' which is a fancy bibliographer's term for a book.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the search for a medieval manuscript? Is it based on fact or did you just imagine it?
A: Codex is in no way based on actual fact...but at the same time, there's nothing particularly implausible about it. Two quick examples. There's a passage in the Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer lists, one by one, everything he'd written up to that point in his life. He mentions a poem called The Book of the Lion, but the funny thing is, no one has ever seen or heard of the poem, it's a lost manuscript, a ghost. This kind of thing drives Chaucer scholars insane. Any one of them would cheerfully kill for a copy of The Book of the Lion.

Another example: around 20 years ago a carpenter in England was restoring an old cabinet when he came across a secret drawer. Inside the drawer was a narrative of the Apocalypse written in a Latin and Anglo-Norman. It was over 700 years old. That book recently sold at Sotheby's for several hundred thousand pounds.

Q: The character of Edward starts out the novel being quite passive and is gradually drawn into the mysterious search for the medieval codex by various characters with ulterior motives. Do you think that he subconsciously allows himself to be drawn into the mystery for any particular personal reason?
A: Edward is a very odd duck, no question about it. Underneath his professional facade there's a riot of unconscious emotions. He's that guy you half-knew in college, the one who's nice, kind of quiet, outwardly very conventional, but you get the feeling that there's something going on in there that not even he is really aware of. I think Edward has set up his whole life on the assumption that he's a quiet, uninteresting person. Fortunately for us, he soon discovers that he is very much mistaken.

Q: You discuss a loose society of people playing Momus, a sophisticated, collaborative, addictive computer game. Do you know of similar groups of people who design, play, and are obsessed with these computer games?
A: Very much, yes. I used to work in an office with a bunch of gamers, and if you stayed after hours you'd discover that they completely took over the office computer network at night for their own nefarious purposes. As strange as it may seem to outsiders, there are a lot of people who spend 40 or 50 hours a week or more playing computer games. They're by no means unintelligent or uninteresting people — often quite the opposite — but you have to understand that for them, life in the virtual world is a lot more important than what goes on in their real lives.

Q: The character Margaret describes how reading for pleasure first began in medieval times. Do you think there is a parallel between reading books as a pastime and the ever-evolving technology that allows playing computer games for entertainment?
A: Novels and computer games have a lot more in common than they seem to at first blush, and I'm not just saying that for the shock value. There's a historical precedent here. When romances first started getting popular in English, in the 14th century, a lot of people found them pretty unsavory, and they were regarded with some of the same fear, suspicion, and contempt that we now direct at video games. Think about it—for the first time, people were going up to their rooms and reading silently to themselves for hours. In Chaucer's time that kind of thing was just considered odd.

There's a great passage in The House of Fame where Chaucer makes fun of himself for his obsession with reading. Every day after work, he says (he's talking to himself here),

"Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon;
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another boke,
Til fully daswed [dazed] is thy loke."

I know a few video gamers — and friends and parents and spouses of gamers — who can relate to that description.

Q: Do you think that these complex computer games have supplanted the novel as a solitary artistic pursuit? Are there dangers in interacting with a machine rather than people?
A: Have games supplanted the novel? Hour for hour, I'd bet that a lot more Americans spend a lot more time playing video games than they do reading novels. These days video games pull in more money than movies. Half of all Americans played a video game of some kind last year. And they're probably having a hell of a lot of fun. But I believe, and will always believe, that novels can do things for you that no video game will ever be able to do, and we neglect them at our peril.

Q: Your day job is working as a book critic for Time magazine. Is it intimidating to cross over to the other side and have your own novel reviewed?
A: I'm not sure intimidating is exactly the word, but there's definitely something unsettling about it. I'm not used to being scrutinized by reviewers -- usually I'm the guy on the other side of the jeweler's loupe. I suppose it's karmic justice. But I'm hardly the first critic to take the plunge: Walter Kirn, James Wood, Dale Peck, and James Wolcott have all done it in the past few years, and they survived more or less unscathed. And for what it's worth, reviewing novels is as good a warm-up as any to writing one yourself: you spend a lot of time thinking about what readers want from a good book, and then you try to give it to them.

Q: You're lucky in that you get to read books and write about them for a living. Do you think that computers are supplanting the act of reading literature? Can the two activities coexist?
A: I'm pretty confident that they can. I think we're starting to get over our early collective crush on computers and the Internet, and we're starting to realize that computers are good for some purposes but totally useless for others. They're fantastic tools for research, for wrangling and sorting huge amounts of data—which is all they were ever built for, really. But they're not that great when it comes to providing an intense, immersive artistic experience; they inspire sorting and skimming, not focused concentration. And that just makes clearer what books are best at: leading us through sustained stories and complex ideas, over time, in comfort and solitude. Books are beautiful, and we have deep sentimental feelings about them, but that's not why they'll survive. They'll survive because nothing else can do what they do. And that helps me sleep at night.

Back to Top

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman