You can find them bloody anywhere. Charity stores, car-boot sales, recycling plants, honesty libraries, any lost and found. There were almost no place where I could not pick up a book or twelve. To think there was a time when books were a special rarity, or a very expensive status symbols, bound in leather and lined on solid oak shelves.
The old rich farts also might have known that a layer of books lining the walls turned out to be good insulation. Not that my walls were a snooty private library. It was always just where I lived, whether a basement, a shack or a bachelor flat.
I worked on the basic principle of two in and one out. It required a number of streams of activity to maintain, because my in mostly tended to outpace my out by several orders of magnitude. Reality was a bit more a case of ten in and one out.
That was until I found The Book. For the next couple of months my ratio dropped practically to zero, both on books in and out.
After almost twenty years of acquisition it was impossible to drop down to completely zero. It was as if I had honed a book hunter’s skill. Or maybe I had developed some kind of book magnetism that attracted them to me. I found them at bus stops, or in dust bins that suddenly ‘spoke to me.’ It was getting rid of them again that took some effort.
With thousands of books in my life there was some kind of anonymity in each individual book. Between covers and pages, binding and glue, ink and fonts there was eventually no significant difference between any two random books. To talk of The Book then was kind of a complete surprise, even to me.
You would think that with the ease that I collected books I would just as easily give them away too. It wasn’t. Not by any means. Specific books belonged to specific people. In much the same way that most people felt they had a book in them, which most ironically never got out, I felt that every person had a book they had to own. It was my job to unite each person and their book.
The Book was however a book that did not belong to any one person. Not in a historical sense. Nor in a metaphysical or spiritual or any other sense. In the months I lived with The Book even I never felt that it was in any way in my possession. Quite the reverse.
I do not like books. Nor do I like reading. And I must admit that I am quite sceptical of people as well. But we do not choose our mission in life. It chooses us, just like books choose us. Maybe I will stop the day I find the one book that belongs to me. Maybe then I will actually read a book.
For me it happened as a fluke. I was still in school and more than one teacher were lamenting the fact that I did not read. As if reading would make a whole person somehow. The library teacher came upon a scheme. I was tasked to sort out new acquisitions to the school library. That was books bought with the school budget as well as donations form all kinds of do-gooders. I think the intention was that I might accidentally happen on a book that would intrigue me enough to start reading. I did happen on something, but not something to read. I picked up a book and it spoke to me, and that was the start.
I would have expected The Book to speak to me the same way when I found it. But I brought it home bundled in a plastic bag with a bunch of other books and it took a number of weeks before I tore off the plastic and went through that particular haul. I discarded it to the I-don’t-know-where-you-belong pile and sorted the other books first.
Sorting was sometimes just a case of holding a book. Sometimes I had to rifle through the pages and sniff the binding. Sometimes I had to check for clues scribbled on the inside of the covers or in the margins. Very rarely I had to read anything.
When that first book spoke to me in the school library I do not mean I could hear the words audibly. I’m not hearing things. What I mean is that I held the book and a name came to me. Caitlin Pearson.
Caitlin sat in front of me in Maths. I don’t think I had ever spoken more than ten words to her. But the book said to me: Caitlin Pearson, and I know it was her book. The book that she had to own, though the concept was not yet clear to me then.
I took the book with me and the next time we had a moment in Maths I tapped her on the shoulder and gave her the book. “I think this is something you might like,” I said.
Caitlin took the book and looked at the front cover. Then she flipped the book over and read what was on the back. And then she clasped the book to her chest and said, so softly I could not hear the words, only read her lips: “Thank you.”
I never spoke to Caitlin again. And no, I had no idea what the book was about. It did not matter then and it still does not matter today. Caitlin committed suicide two weeks later and that shook the whole school because nobody ever suspected she wasn’t happy. I somehow felt that the book made a kind of difference for her in the end, and therefore I made some kind of difference. I mattered.
When I picked up The Book the cover gave me nothing, except that it was covered by that heavy plastic that libraries used to protect their books. But the access number was torn from the corner and I had to rifle through the pages, front to back and back to front and then I had to open the book all the way to smell the spine. It had a musty smell. Clearly because it had some water damage. About the half the pages buckled and stained, as if by very weak tea.
No, it gave no immediate indication of being anything special.
I got some books to the right people by selling them the books. There is a certain kind of person that will not value anything unless they had paid a price for it. I listed books in the small ads of the papers, though that worked less well recently. All kinds of bargain bin and collectable websites were also useful. Though I did not let the book go unless I knew the buyer was the right one for the book. I had become good at diversions—Sorry, it was just sold. You just missed it. Anything else I can interest you in?
The Book forced me to start studying the inside covers. It started with a label in the back—Property of Paradeda Library. I though I knew all the libraries by now. I had never heard of Paradeda Library.
And then the Dewey decimal number. It was a number I had never seen before. As if it was a decimal number, but from an alternate universe, to place on a shelf that would be a fourth dimension left of our own. I could not fix the number in my mind. It was as even the number did not belong in our world. Which meant that the person that the book belonged too would also not be a person of this world.
But I don’t believe in alternate dimensions. I think that is a stupid idea cooked up by people that are just not happy with this world we are given. Nor do I mull over the supernatural though my experience with The Book was most definitely surreal.
If a book does not speak to me immediately I put it in storage. Storage meant stacked on shelves and piles and whatever other way, as long as it was easily accessible and visible. Sometime I would lie in bed in the half light of dawn and one book on a shelf would just draw my attention for no reason whatsoever. Normally that book then found their right person within a week.
I had never been able not to get a book to where it belong. Not until I happened on The Book. It was somehow the boomerang of books. Something you could not throw away even if you wanted to.
It was clear the Paradeda Library did not exist. Not as a public library so I started looking for private libraries. But I also found no person or organisation going by the name and I must admit I was stumped.
Why was I looking for a library? I also asked myself the question because I did not return books to libraries. I have never done so before. Not that I had not been a library member. I just never returned the books I checked out. And I only checked out books that spoke to me.
I was not sure if The Book was deaccessioned. Or that it was never returned and found its way by the natural journey of jumble sale, to second hand book store, to sale pile, to my plastic bag. Not that The Book did not speak to me. I just kind of spoke in a completely different language.
I put The Book in storage and tried to forget about it.
It became a stumbling block I kicked against almost every waking hour. Whenever I thought I would sort out or deliver another book I found that I had The Book in my hands. I moved it from place to place. Put it at the bottom of other piles. Left it inside boxes of unsorted books, left it at the very top of my highest shelf, stuff behind another pile.
And when I started, trying to get back to my mission, I found that somehow I had it in my hand again. It was like I had a poltergeist. But one that only cared about one book. I don’t believe in ghosts but I entertained the notion, otherwise I had to believe that The Book had an intelligence of its own.
My life was unsettled. I was distracted at work. I was edgy at home and I felt that my mission was blocked. I had not united a book with anybody for more than two months and my life began to feel meaningless. You might say that I was on the edge of depression, my days spent with no joy.
Then it invaded my nights.
My dreams became extremely vivid. And continuous. As if I was dreaming the same dream over and over again. Or maybe it was a very long dream that just rewound and played over key scenes with the same obsession as a teenage boy repeatedly listening to the favourite part of his song. But it was no favourite of mine, because I did not feel that I chose it. The Book brought the dreams.
Part of the dream was some kind of assembly. I was part of a large crowd of people sitting in chairs, facing a stage. Sometimes the place was full and I was squashed between other people. Sometimes it was half empty, people moving chairs about so that if you did not remain seated then you would lose your place.
I always sat in the audience but nothing ever happened on the stage. Not while I was a part of the audience.
Part of the dream I was wandering in a maze. As you expect the maze sometimes looked like a library with the shelves groaning with large tomes. Sometimes it was your typical maze made with conifers, dried leaves on the ground and a metal grey sky above. Sometimes the maze was just painted white rocks marking the passages on the ground.
But these were just the entry ways into the real dream.
The real dream was a small room I entered through a door small enough I almost had to bend double. The walls were stone but bathed in the flickering light of candles so that I never could tell what the true shape of the room was.
It had a built in fire place where the fire had died down to bright embers. To the one side was a small writing table with a pile of parchment sheets, an inkwell, and a pen. There was writing on the pages but I was never allowed to read it.
On the other side of there was a smaller table and on this a small bookshelf. Built almost like a cradle it was at an angle so that the books nestled in it. There were eleven books on the shelf. Eleven books and one empty space.
It took about two months of dreaming and wandering through pointless auditoriums and endless mazes until I found that cozy little writing room. And once I found it, and the moment the dream was clear enough, the first time I managed to count the books, I knew I what I saw before me: the Paradeda Library.
A library is a collection of books. Our minds and lives had turned it into an official institution with halls and rules and thousands of books. But how many books did you need to have collected to name your library? Apparently twelve is enough. And when one book is then missing it is a library that has been gutted, that is not whole.
I reunited books with people. That was my mission in life. I had never done anything else with a book. Never even read one. Never had one of my own. I was just a caretaker. A post master, passing on packages.
My mission narrowed in focus. I had to return The Book. The first book I would ever return to a library. But how do you return a book when you can only get to the library in your dreams?
I tried sleeping more. I tried tiring myself out to exhaustion and sleeping less, and then to collapse in a stupor. I tried warm milk, and sleeping pills, and even rituals with candles and meditations and mantras.
Alongside with this I kept The Book with me. Under my pillow. Clutched in my hands. Sewn into a pocket of a hoody I wore to bed. Tied to my arm with a stretch bandage.
Sometimes I reached the dream with The Book. Sometimes I reached the room, but never with The Book on me. It was as if it faded away and did not make it deep enough into the dream.
It all became hopeless. As if there was nothing that I could do anymore and if my life had turned in on itself and had became a cruel joke of repeating what you know you should be doing but to no effect.
I was desperate. And like all desperate people I did the last thing that I thought I would ever do.
I started reading The Book.
Which was weird. Because it was not even written in a language I could read. Nor did it use the normal alphabet, nor any other such as Greek or Cyrillic.
But I still read the book. In obstinate frustration I let my eyes hover from letter form to letter form, from line to line. I turned pages and finished sections and I had no idea what I read, or what anything meant, or even what the book was about. Until at one point, having read late into the night I stopped and looked up and I found myself in front of the Paradeda Library. Eleven books on a small slanted shelf. Their covers lit up by the flickering light.
And in my hand I had The Book.
It took almost six months to return that one book. And that should have been the end of it.
Except that, one of the other eleven books spoke to me.
And it said: “Caitlin Pearson.”