Fragment from a dead book

Two hours had passed and the blank piece of paper still stared menacingly back at Edmund. He had tried to summon inspiration, but nothing came. All around him people were giving the impression of being terribly — provokingly — productive. Reading, writing, cramming, typing: busy, busy, busy. All while Edmund sat gazing into empty space, as if hoping that the words he was looking for would at any given moment materialize out of the air in front of him.

After having been seated unproductively like this for quite some time, feeling himself drawn closer and closer to the rows of bookshelves on the other side of the room, Edmund finally gave up.

‘It’s not the day today,’ he told himself, ‘nothing comes to me.’

He stood up and crossed the room. The earplugs that lay deep inside his ears made him unsure about how much sound he was actually making and so he moved and breathed with an intense and focused silence.

On certain days, coming to the library provided only a bittersweet enjoyment for Edmund. Watching other people be productive while he himself could not find the attention to write even a single sentence was one thing, but there was another, deeper ache that came with being reminded for the one millionth time of the absurd number of books that exist in the world. Even if one lived to be a hundred, one would still not be able to read even a one-hundredth of the books that is written in a single year. As a consequence of this, Edmund often complained to himself that the task of figuring out what books to read usually felt more like deciding on which ones not to read. That picking and not picking was the same thing. Also, when one is as liberal in taste as this young man was — unable to focus on any area of study or genre of preference, there was always the overwhelming possibility that one will leave the library carrying a stack so large and irregular that one could not possibly hope to get through more than a quarter of it before their lease expired.

Edmund had never understood the people who limit themselves to reading only one genre, whether it be crime novels, or science fiction or the works of a single author or from a single period in time — it just didn’t make sense to him. He also didn’t get why so many people read only the newest releases, and the ‘best-sellers,’ — works that would likely be forgotten in a year — when there were so many (too many, really) works that had already stood the test of time and which formed the eternal pillars of our culture.

‘No, I can start reading contemporary literature when I’m done reading all the old literature,’ he said to himself, knowing full-well that that meant he would never read a contemporary work in his life.

To tell the truth though, Edmund had read many books by contemporary authors throughout his life, though admittedly these had mostly been book of the scientific or non-fiction genre. Some of these he had liked quite a bit. But to like was so much less than to adore, a feeling which only a classic work could produce in him. The old tomes, sometimes by virtue of their anteriority alone, possessed something no contemporary work ever could. They were tinted by an almost spiritual glow, and the older the book, the more profound was the enthrallment, as if the weight of it increased by every passing year.

Stopping at a random place along the aisles, Edmund picked out a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone and studied it. It had the original Greek written on one side and a modern French translation on the other. Before he had learned French merely the sound and appearance of everyday words could sometimes be enough to make Edmund shiver with naïve, enamored curiosity. Everything he did not understand gave the impression of being immeasurably profound and beautiful. That, perhaps to an even higher degree, is how he still felt whenever faced with printed Greek or Latin.

‘They are like the Adam and Eve of languages, ’ he thought, ‘the root of everything else and the place where all original truths are to be found, unpolluted and preserved.’

Edmund picked up another ancient work and read its arcane messages, feeling like whatever meaning they contained must be unlike any thought he had ever had.

Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis.

Edmund positively quivered with delight — the way he had used to quiver when he read epitaphs by La Fontaine or maxims by de la Rochefoucauld, back when he had no idea what they said.

If only he could one day write words that were capable of filling someone with the same wonder and inspiration as his heroes did for him — how happy he would be. To extract and produce, like an alchemist, golden images of his own imagination and then to have other people walk around and lose themselves inside them. To make others feel connected to him, the same way he felt connected to Heller, Hemingway and Hugo, and for them to feel as close to his characters as he felt to Martin Eden, Hans Castorp and Prince Myshkin. There could not possibly be a higher goal to which he could aspire. Only imagine, if one day people could read his books and see for themselves that inside Edmund’s mind lay such a wealth of emotion and such an unbounded appreciation of life and of all the things that added richness to existence. Then everyone who knew him would suddenly realize, and say to themselves, that they had always known that Edmund would turn into an artist all along — that he had now simply become the person he was always meant to be. Oh! it was such an attractive dream, so worthy in-and-of-itself; to write, and dream and live — perhaps forever through one’s words! And then to hear, that most weighty and sweetest of it all judgments, yes, after years of toil and hardship; to hear the leviathan of humankind speaking that simple, but all-redeeming phrase, ‘You are good at what you do.’ That, and only that, could possibly be the source of any lasting contentment. Only then will I be able to rest my mind.

Listening to such thoughts running rampant in his head, Edmund would often close all doors, make every circumstance ideal, and then sit down, quietly, with the express purpose to finally write his masterpiece. But even then, when all conditions were perfect and no better setting could be asked for, he more often than not found that he could not produce a single decent paragraph. Trivial or decadent and never in between, his sentences always came out too gilded or too base. No style could be observed in what he wrote, no plan and never any subtlety.

When several such days lined up in a row, desperation would usually begin to take hold over his mind. And then — if it were not for the memory of those rare days, on which a worthy phrase or paragraph, perhaps even an entire page, would magically appear amidst his papers — then the young man would long since have been crushed beneath the weight of his overly inflated aspirations.

But perhaps the reason Edmund could not yet write was that he had not yet read enough. ‘Yes, yes,’ he told himself — ‘that had to be the explanation.’

That is... unless... he was simply not cut out to be a writer. Because what if, by some cruel trick of fortune, he had come to believe that writing was his purpose in life, when the truth was that he possessed no talent for it at all? Where had the idea of writing ever come from anyway? Edmund could not remember.

Amidst such tempests of self-doubt, while skimming through pages and pages of the spectacularly written words of his idols, examining them sentence by sentence, Edmund would realize to his despair that he would never be able to write like them: not now, not ever. So far above him were their gifts and their abilities. So much sharper were their perceptions and so much stronger was their will. Better to give it all up before it’s too late to turn around. Better to be a mediocre somebody than a useless nobody…

But alas, it was already far too late for that, and Edmund knew it. He had already invested too much in the choice he never knew he’d made: told too many that it was his goal to be a writer — in short, setting himself up high, high above his actual abilities. He could not stop. He had made the mistake of imagining himself to be in possession of talent — a fictional talent which he now found himself being dragged behind like a slave tied to his master’s horse. There simply was no stopping lest the master stopped.

‘So be it then,’ said Edmund, and went back to his seat inside the humming library.

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