The difficulties of the 15th-century book trade, though, are precisely what make The Bookseller of Florence such a fascinating read: they link pursuits as seemingly minor as sheep farming to plague, politics, and papal crusades. Though ostensibly a biography of Vespasiano, he is less the book’s subject than its method: a window on to the intellectual, political and technological developments of a time in radical ferment. It is an astute choice by King, just as King – entertaining, witty and expert – is a fortunate fate for Vespasiano. It is a book I will be keeping on my shelves, despite the crowding.
The author is equally circumstantial when describing the rival process of printing. Anyone who has set up a page using moveable metal type will be impressed by the vividness and precision of his account, from the bits of blank type, “slugs”, that you have to insert to “justify” (or equalise) the length of lines on a page, to the ease with which letters like p and q can get mixed up and print upside down (the origin, King says, of the expression “mind your p’s and q’s”, although that seems doubtful). Remarkable as these feats of factual exposition are, King’s supreme ability is to imagine himself into the past.