Can books change people’s destinies? There is much discussion of this very topic when Bluma Lennon is struck by a car, distracted by a second-hand book of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Over the years, there have been other victims of such mischance, those avid readers oblivious to their surroundings, grown careless while turning the pages of a favorite title.
Bluma's eulogy lauds her as a lover of literature, but no one could have imagined that her passion would lead to her early demise, eliciting such heated discussion that the students on campus enter a competition on the subject: "Relations between reality and language." Cambridge is buzzing with opinions, everyone with something cogent to say on the subject.
A package arrives, addressed to Bluma, postmarked from Uruguay. The narrator of the novel, who has been teaching her classes until a successor is chosen, secretively opens the package, unable to contain his curiosity. Inside is a used, broken-spined copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line, the author the subject of Bluma’s thesis. The volume is filthy, with particles of cement clinging to the cover and no letter to explain its arrival.
Strangely disturbed by the package and its origin, the narrator takes pains to track the sender: Carlos Brauer of Rocha, Uruguay, formerly of Argentina. Obsessing on the details of the damaged book, the narrator reveals his love of the printed word, his own shelves overflowing with titles, many given away to students during the year but quickly replaced by new acquisitions, his library "advancing silently."
Tracking Brauer’s movements from Argentina to Uruguay, the narrator soon finds himself in Buenos Aires, where he encounters a fellow collector who confides that Carlos is a bibliophile, one who loves books for the pure joy of ownership. Recently however, Carlos has gone missing, selling his house and many of his precious books before leaving Argentina for the harsh coast of Uruguay. The narrator is faced with yet another mystery to solve.
His search fraught with minor frustrations, the narrator is finally able to locate Carlos Brauer’s last residence on the Uruguayan coast, only to be faced with another conundrum. The pages littered with quirky characters, this rarified world of book collectors, "concealing a dense web of secrets beneath a mild air of reticence," is complemented by fanciful illustrations, a dense fable of an extraordinary world where man's destiny intersects a love of language, the twisted road to a remote crossing of The Shadow-Line.