1. As Salamander tells the story (or stories) of a world-spanning quest for the infinite book, how does the novel itself begin to take on the characteristics of the infinite book?
2. Throughout the novel we encounter people, places, and things that are continually shifting, changing shape, refusing to be fixed to a single position, style, or identity. What are some examples of such shape-shifting? Why do you think the author populated the novel with so many shape-shifters?
3. Pica’s story begins with the telling of a fairy tale [p 117], followed by her recollections of her life in the dreary Ospedale in Venice. Why has the author chosen to open Pica’s story with a fairy tale? Are there other fairy-tale elements in Pica’s story, and how do they differ from what you may find in more conventional fairy tales?
4. The relationship between fathers and daughters is an important one in Salamander. How does Pica’s relationship with Flood resemble Irena’s relationship with Count Ostrov? How does it differ? In what ways do Pica and Irena both carve out a particular niche for themselves within the world of their fathers’ obsessions? Do you think Flood and Count Ostrov ultimately pass on something of their obsessions to their daughters?
5. Why do you think the author chooses a printer and not a writer to be the hero of this story about the magical power of books? What is he trying to say about the craftsman’s role?
6. How would you describe the relationship that the Abbé, Count Ostrov, Flood, and Djinn each have with time?
7. When the Abbé finds Pica with Kirshner’s type he says, “You found your own well of stories, as indeed I should have guessed you would. When I visited you at the Ospedale, I felt that we were somehow akin” [p 358]. Both the Abbé and Pica are in their own ways searching for a “well of stories” but for very different reasons. How do Pica’s motivations differ from those of the Abbé? Do you think they ultimately find what they’re looking for?
8. In many ways Salamander can itself be considered a “well of stories.” What are some of the genres the novel draws upon to tell its story? Woven into the novel’s main narrative are a collection of side stories, all with elaborate titles such as “The Metallurgist’s Tale,” “The Adventure of Djinn,” and “The Curious Confession of the Widow Janssens.” What is the significance of these stories-within-the-story? Why do you think the author gives these stories titles? Rumours and legends abound in Salamander. In what ways are these types of “stories” different from the other tales in the book?
9. Salamander is a true book lover’s book, one which intentionally evokes other books, including The Thousand and One Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels. What significance do these particular books have in the story? Were there elements in the novel that reminded you of any other books?
10. The author seems to make a distinction between those who would own or collect and those who would create. Insatiable collectors, Count Ostrov, the Abbé, and the Alexandrian pasha are constantly amassing things in a futile attempt to control what is beyond human control. What is it that each of these men is trying to conquer? How do their motivations differ from that of the characters who devote their lives to the act of creation? What does the novel have to say about the nature of desire?
11. When Flood tells Irena he can remember the past as if it was yesterday, she tells him, “The past is who we are” [p 99]. How are the various characters in the book haunted by the past? How does Djinn’s relationship to the past differ from those of the others?
12. Discuss the importance of dreams in the novel.
13. When Pica reads the infinite book for the first time, the author tells us “she suddenly understood that she might search for these chapters but never find them. In such a book they could remain ever out of reach, tantalizing and perfect. She thought of how she approached other books. On the shelf or just opened, a book was all possibility, a wondrous box of paper that could contain anything” [p 309]. How is the theme of the endless potential of books explored in the novel, both literally and metaphorically? The first time Count Ostrov and Flood meet, the Count poses a riddle to which the answer is a book [p 33]. How does the riddle embrace the theme of the infinite possibilities contained in a book? Do you have an “ideal” book that you’d like to read?
14. Discuss how the novel invites the reader to consider not only the act of reading, but also the reader’s ability to alter the story by bringing his or her own experiences to the reading of the tale.
15. Preceding each section are italicized meditations on the nature of books and reading. In what specific ways do these sections refer back to the act of reading Salamander itself?
16. Why do you think Salamander begins with two key historical battles that ultimately determined which empire would rule over the conflicted territories? What is the author saying about the larger narrative that is History? In what ways can the unusual structure of the infinite book be said to parallel the historical narrative?
17. Pica’s name evokes different things for different people. What does her name mean for Flood, Irena, the girls at the Ospedale? How do these associations in turn reflect some element of the relationship these people have with Pica?
18. In poring over books about infinity in the Count’s library, Flood comes across a work in which God is compared to a book: “If you could cradle this fearful volume in your hand, and were to open it anywhere, beginning, middle, or end, you would find that between any two pages there would be always a third, between any two words there would be always another, between any two letters would be an unheard, invisible letter, a doorway to the void known only to mystics, where reigns a silence so profound that the roar of the entire universe rushes to fill it” [p 58]. Discuss this notion of God in relation to Flood’s infinite book. What does the author mean when he writes “the universe is really a word, a thought thinking itself in God's mind” [p 166]?
19. At various points in the novel, people and machines sometimes clash or combine in surprising ways. What are some examples of this collision? of this union? Flood recalls that his sister used to believe the printing press was a monster [p 45], and at one point the Abbé mentions how the superstitious might consider Flood’s printing press a "tool of Satan" [p 199]. How does this fear of new technology resonate in our own times?
20. The author tells us that “the philosophers of the age were asking why or how God, perfect Being, had created an imperfect world, a world which at the same time the new science was comparing to an intricate machine of uncertain purpose” [p 16]. In what ways does the Count reflect the thinking of his age? How does he try to play God himself? The Count believes that all puzzles are related to others by a “universal pattern” [p 16], and that the universe itself is “a vast, unbounded book of riddles. A book written in the elusive and unutterable language of God” [p 42]. What do you think of this idea of there ultimately being some sort of order in chaos?
21. What is the significance of the novel’s title?
22. The idea of regeneration implicit in the book’s epigraph and Flood's motto - “I restore life from death” - can be seen on many levels throughout the book. What are some examples? How does the Abbé’s quest and his peculiar affliction work against this idea?
23. When Flood stops at The Indian & Conundrum in London, he hears of Samuel Johnson and his “endless book” - a dictionary of the English language [p 322]. In what ways could a dictionary be said to resemble the infinite book?
24. After sifting through the wreckage of her press, Pica refers to the single piece of type she finds as “infinity in her pocket” [p 368]. What is the significance of this? Why might the author have decided to include this at the end of the book?
25. Salamander is also a story about the art of bookmaking. The author writes that in each book there “lies a human tale of typecutters, squinting compositors, proofreaders and black-faced printer's devils” [p 153], all of whom are represented by key characters in the novel. What aspect of the bookmaking process did you find most intriguing?
26. Discuss the connections that can be drawn between the human body and books on both a literal and metaphoric level. In what way does “The Legend of Seshat” [p 195] explore one aspect of this connection?
27. In Muslim mythology, a “djinn” (also referred to as “jinn,” “jinni,” or “genie”) is a spirit that ranks below angels, with the ability to assume various forms, both human and animal. What is the significance of Djinn’s mythological name within the context of the novel?
28. Discuss ways in which the death of Flood’s sister may compel his journey both actual and psychological.