Meet Optimus Yarnspinner in Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books

When we launched our bimonthly theme on Books about Books, little did I know how smitten I would be with the books and authors that I would discover thanks to our theme – German author Walter Moers being one of them. The City of Dreaming Books is, bar none, what I would consider the definitive book about books.


This is where my story begins. It tells how I came into possession of The Bloody Book and acquired the Orm. It’s not a story for people with thin skins and weak nerves, whom I would advise to replace this book on the pile at once and slink off to the children’s section. Shoo! Begone, you cry-babies and quaffers of camomile tea, you wimps and softies! This book tells of a place where reading is still a genuine adventure, and by adventure I mean the old-fashioned definition of the word that appears in the Zamonian Dictionary: ‘A Daring enterprise undertaken in a spirit of curiosity or temerity, it is potentially life-threatening, harbours unforeseeable dangers and sometimes proves fatal.’

Yes, I speak of a place where reading can drive people insane. Where books may injure and poison them – indeed, even kill them. Only those who are thoroughly prepared to take such risks in order to read this book – only those willing to hazard their lives in so doing – should accompany me to the next paragraph. The remainder I congratulate on their wise but yellow-bellied decision to stay behind. Farewell, you cowards! I wish you a long and boring life, and, on that note, bid you goodbye!

Optimus Yarnspinner, Unpublished Author in Search of Missing Master Storyteller. I have to admit I am a sucker for warnings such as the one I just typed. It reminded me a little bit of Lemony Snicket’s The Series of Unfortunate Events (particularly with the reference to definitions and dictionaries). With a preface like that, how could one not possibly read and relish and enjoy this book. If I had my doubts that I could ever fall in love with an overweight dinosaur who lives and breathes literature, then this novel has dispelled that notion in its entirety – I suppose this lady is easy that way. In the course of reading this 456-paged novel (Moers must love the sound of dripping words from his fingers), my heart was captured by our not-yet-published-author who is in search of a mirage. Before his authorial godfather, Dancelot Wordwright, passed away, he told Optimus of an unpublished manuscript that was sent to him for comments by an unknown author. Optimus described how he felt as he read the story:

The author’s way of writing was so absolutely right, so perfect, that tears sprang to my eyes – something that usually happens only when I’m listening to stirring music. There was an unearthly finality about its grandeur. Sobbing unrestrainedly, I continued to read through a veil of tears until a new idea of the writer’s tickled me so much that my tears abruptly ceased and I roared with laughter. I guffawed like a drunken idiot and pounded my thigh with my fist. By the Orm, how funny it was! I gasped for breath, quietened briefly with one paw clamped to my mouth – and despite myself, burst out laughing again. As if under some strange compulsion, I repeated the words aloud several times, interrupted by recurrent paroxysms of hysterical laughter. Ha, ha, ha! That was the funniest sentence I’d ever read! An absolute scream, a joke to end all jokes! My eyes now filled with tears of mirth. The punchline was quite spontaneous – I could never have thought of anything as witty, not in my wildest dreams. By all the Zamonian Muses, how stunningly good it was! (pp. 26-27)

Illustrations done by Walter Moers himself. How could ONE man possibly be so amazingly-talented?

Needless to say, Optimus Yarnspinner simply had to find out who wrote this beyond-brilliant piece of writing. And his adventure brought him to Bookholm, the City of Dreaming Books.

Of Bookholm, the Catacombs, and Bookhunters. Bookholm represents the universe that is perfectly crafted by a bibliophile in an altered state of consciousness. There’s no other way that I could describe it adequately. Words escape me as I try to describe how wonderful this book is that I find myself having to cite from Moers himself to do his brilliantly-conceived world justice:

A deserted side-street in Bookholm. Reminded me of Prague.

Bookholm had more than five thousand officially registered antiquarian bookshops and roughly a thousand semi-legal establishments that sold, in addition to books, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and intoxicating herbs and essences whose ingestion was reputed to enhance your pleasure and powers of concentration when reading. There was also an almost incalculable number of itinerant vendors with printed matter of every conceivable kind for sale in shoulder bags or on handcarts, in wheelbarrows and mobile bookcases. Bookholm boasted over six hundred publishing houses, fifty-five printers, a dozen paper mills and a steadily growing number of factories producing lead type and printer’s ink. There were shops offering thousands of different bookmarks and ex-libris, stonemasons specialising in bookends, cabinetmakers’ workshops and furniture stores filled with lecterns and bookcases, opticians who manufactured spectacles and magnifying glasses, and coffee shops on every street corner. Open for business twenty-four hours a day, most of the latter had inglenook fireplaces and were venues for authors’ readings. (pp. 30-31)

A place such as this, of course, would be filled with shadows, two-faced villains, and unlikely heroes – matched ingeniously by Moers’ fantastical imaginings as seen in “corpulent Hogglings” (cutthroat literary agents), Live Newspapers in the form of fleet-footed dwarfs outfitted in strips of newsprint:

Have you seen anything like this live newspaper before? Nah, I didn’t think so. Redefines the entire concept of ‘making the news.’

.. and savage (albeit a tad simpleminded) Bookhunters who wear protective devices and armor to shield their beings away from books that hunt and fly and kill (aptly called Hazardous Books), as they scour the catacombs in search of book treasures – oftentimes killing one another in the process.

And I thought I was a bookhunter. Apparently I may just be a casual cursory reader in Zamonian standards in contrast to this hardcore hunter of books.

If you are up for a fantastical adventure in a Netherworld populated by strange creatures who are crazy about words, poetry, books, music, artwork until your senses are filled to overflowing with the tastesmellsightfeel of parchment, ink, and wordswordswords then you have got to find this book and eat it or read it. From Master Readers of Bookholm (who are described to be a “capricious, choosy bunch”) to Musician Murkholmers who play the trombophone (enough to bring the listener to a surreal ‘astronomical systemic polyphony’ universe); to Bookemists who breathe life, fire, eyes into books; to mysterious, omniscient Ugglies who sell books filled with curses and incantations; to an evil genius Shark Grub with fourteen little arms who owns a typographical laboratory and conducts research into words with Leyden Manikins and who loathes artists as if they are the most repulsive beings on earth – there is something for everyone who adores books in Moers’ universe. And apparently, this book has a sequel (wheee!) – click here to know more and to meet a fellow Moers fan.

“book-shaped pastry filled with apple purée and topped with almonds and pistachio nuts…. The little ribbon of cinnamon-scented filling that oozed out resembled a liquid bookmark” – p. 79

Confounded Riddles and Fearsome Booklings. Among all the creatures in Zamonia, though, I enjoyed the Fearsome Booklings the best. How they earned the reputation of being the most vile, the most terrifying and most formidable creatures within the bowels of the catacombs, I shall leave for you to discover.

What I find to be thoroughly fascinating about these creatures is that they have made it their life’s purpose to memorize the bodies of works written by their namesake as they are named after famous literary figures in Zamonia. It didn’t take me long to realize that the literary giants in this far-off universe are actually anagrams of the world famous (and often-dead) authors in our comparatively-boring universe. In order for them to really find out whether Optimus Yarnspinner is not some half-witted and obtuse Bookhunter, and that he actually comes from Lindworm Castle (renowned for producing the most prolific of authors in Zamonia), they would quote from the works of their namesake to test whether Yarnspinner would know who they are – a process called Orming.

“This is how it works. Every Bookling selects a passage from his writer’s works – one he believes him to have written when the Orm was flowing through him with particular intensity. He will then recite the said passage aloud. If you’re good at Zamonian literature you’ll identify it in most cases, but if you’re bad at Zamonian literature you’ll make a terrible ass of yourself. Although I said “he” in every case, I should add that our writers can be male or female. That’s what we mean by Orming.”  (p. 223)

Now that’s a bookling for you. Doesn’t he look positively fierce?

And now just to check whether the Power of the Orm is indeed alive and well with you, dear friends, do try to guess who this Zamonian literary giant could be in our parallel universe:

‘The quality of mercy is not strained, 

it droppeth like the drips from stalactites

upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;

it blesseth him that gives and him that takes…’

This quote is said to be written by Aleisha Wimpersleake. Ok, ok, I know that was easy. How about this other one:

I hovered, lonely as a kite

that floats on high o’er hill and dale, 

when all at once I saw a sight

that made my countenance turn pale.

This one is said to be done by Wamilli Swordthrow. Hmm… Still easy, I know, but you get the picture. I can’t resist one more:

An albino Bookling with a watery red eye stepped forward.

‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

my soul can reach. When I behold the sight

of they bowed head and mournful, careworn face

my spirits sink, beyond all power to raise,

and every day becomes perpetual night.’

Good heavens, Bethelzia B. Binngrow! My authorial godfather had robbed me of many a night’s sleep by compelling me to memorise the lugubrious love poems of that half-demented Florinthian poetess. I still knew that one by heart. (p. 227)

If you don’t love Walter Moers by now, I don’t know which quote I can possibly write here that would make you love him. And yes, I found myself laughing uproariously in the middle of the night as I begin to realize the references and the wordplay, the brilliant anagrams. It is clear. The orm is flowing through the veins of Walter Moers. No, it is his lifesource.

The Power of the Orm. Now what is the ORM exactly? As an academic who is entranced with the notion of creativity and spellbound by the psychology of artists, I am constantly on the lookout as to where this wellspring of vibrant electrifying energy comes from. I love how it was described by Homuncolossus (who he is, you have to find out for yourself) in this manner:

‘Anyone can write,’ he said. ‘Some people can write a bit better than others; they’re called authors. Then there are some who can write better than authors; they’re called artists. Finally, there are some artists who can write better than other artists. No name has yet been devised for them. They’re the ones who have attained the Orm…

… The creative density of the Orm is immeasurable. It’s a source of inspiration that never runs dry – as long as you know how to get there.’

… ‘Only a handful of true artists attain the Orm. That’s a great privilege in itself, but very few of them know the Alphabet of the Stars. They’re the elite. Master it, and you can, if you’ve attained the Orm, communicate there with all the artistic forces in the universe. You can learn things whose existence you would never have suspected in your wildest dreams.’ (p. 377)

Advice to Novice Writers. Let me end this unbearably long write-up with a few words of wisdom  from the Fearsome Booklings who offered unsolicited (and occasionally sound) advice to Optimus Yarnspinner. I thought that it would also do most writers good to bear these in mind:

Never write a novel from the perspective of a door handle!

Foreign words are foreign to most readers.

Never put more words in a sentence than genuinely belong in it.

If a full stop is a wall, a colon is a door.

If you write something while drunk, read it through sober before you submit it to a publisher.

Never write with anything but quicksilver; it guarantees narrative flow.

Footnotes are like books on the bottom shelf. No one likes looking at them because they have to bend down.

A single sentence should never contain more than a million ants unless it’s in a scientific work on ants.

Sonnets are best written on deckle-edged paper, novellas on vellum.

Take a deep breath after every third sentence.

It’s best to write horror stories with a wet flannel round your neck.

If one of your sentences puts you in mind of an elephant trying to pick up a coconut with its trunk, better give it some more thought.

Stealing from one author is plagiarism; from many authors, research.

Big books are big because the author didn’t have the time to express himself succinctly.

(p. 267)

And with that dear friends, I invite you all to experience this book for yourself. Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing quite like it.

The City of Dreaming Books: A Novel from Zamonia by Optimus Yarnspinner. Translated from the Zamonian and illustrated by Walter Moers. Whose German Text was translated into English by John Brownjohn. Vintage Books, London, 2007. Book borrowed from the public library.

Wetzlar Prize for Fantasy for Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher [“The City of Dreaming Books] (2005)

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 117 (35)

2 Comments on Meet Optimus Yarnspinner in Walter Moers’ The City of Dreaming Books

  1. Wow! Where do you find these treasures? The aroma of the book-shaped pastry drew me here :).

  2. I think that Walter Moers made a fantastic book.

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