Thursday, May 1, 2008

Identifying With Books

I'm not often willing to identify myself with people who are all into books and how smart they are and whatever. Like many book lovers, I don't care whether a book has a leather cover, or what kind of edition it is, as long as it is readable. (But I will admit to feeling a thrill every time I got a book out of the Folger library and found a famous reader's marginal notes scribbled in it.) I try to read as widely as possible, from the lowbrow to the high, and have little patience with folks who want me to list titles or review every single blame thing I read; some are fleeting pleasures and others are best forgotten. However, yesterday I found these song lyrics, parodying "Baby got Back," by following the link on Bookshelves of Doom:
and I enjoyed the heck out of them.

It made me think about a story in the April issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, entitled The First Editions and written by James Stoddard, in which the main character, Jakob, finds himself turned into a book by a book collector/sorceror who calls himself "a student of the lives of others." The collector reads all the books (autobiographies) that he has turned people into over the centuries, and it's an unpleasant sensation to be read, Jakob discovers, because: "after several tries I saw within my own pages. I could scan the words; I could skip from page to page. Everything was there: my thoughts, my dreams--and my humiliations and cruelties. Nothing was omitted. I inwardly blushed to see my lowest desires in print." When he tries to close himself rather than let the collector read him, he is threatened with the fire, and then the collector makes an attempt to appease him: "You should be satisfied here. You will be satisfied. Think! How often have you longed to spend your days in such a library, in the company of good books? And these are the best of books. You can read them; they can read you. Idyllic. The slow turn of library days. I have given you what you always dreamed."

Eventually, Jakob falls in love with the book next to him, Janine. They read selections from each other's pages:
I looked inward and found a humorous incident from my childhood on page twenty-three.
"Perhaps this one," I suggested.
She gave me her page ninety-seven, an account from her teenage years. I gasped as her page sprang to my mind, vellum-white with golden letters--Janine was beautiful inside and out.
We read together, a brief passage, and it was the most intimate experience I had ever known. Her soul lay before me, captured in lines rhythmic as poetry. More than the words, it was the order and the shape, the letters and punctuation, the sentences and paragraphs, the way her thoughts rose and fell. It was an ecstasy, holy and wonderful. At the same time, I felt her partaking of me. She murmured in delight as she read me; I basked beneath her approval; our thoughts intertwined in the reading. Our covers touched lightly; I felt the passion of her soul.

But the book collector moves the books around periodically, and Jakob is separated from Janine, causing him to first edge himself out in the hope that the collector will read his final pages and see that he has fallen in love with Janine, and when that doesn't work, to hurl himself from the edge of the bookshelf to the floor below in a plea for attention: "perhaps the sorceror was not as insightful or as curious as I suspected, for upon seeing me on the floor, he clucked twice....he picked me up and examined my spine. 'No harm done,' he proclaimed, placing me back on the shelf.
'Read me!' I yelled. But he gave no sign of hearing."

Finally, however, Jakob and Janine are successful at throwing themselves to the floor and having their last pages read. The collector is unwilling to have his "books dictating their positions." At length, however, the lovers' plight foments rebellion among the books, and they all manage to fling themselves on the floor. At first the collector is angry, but eventually he speaks softly to the books: "you should be honored to be a volume in this library. I have chosen each of you carefully. Some of you, I traveled hundreds of miles to find. Others came into my hands by chance. Yet, all of you I have treasured. Many of you have outlived your entire generation, your words and thoughts given immortality. Would you leave here only to turn to dust?"

The books agree that it is only the lovers and a few other books who desire to leave the library, and the sorceror eventually agrees to try to free a few of them. When he turns Jakob and Janine back into people, they are surprised to find books with their names on the covers still sitting on the shelf. They look at the collector inquiringly and he says "they do not live. But if a man can't own a first edition, a second will have to do."

I laughed and laughed at the end of the story. Finally, in the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, which made the prostitution of little girls in beauty pageants literal, a story that shows the vanity and uselessness of preening yourself on owning first editions!

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