Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men – men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. (1)
The shelf stood nearly nine feet high, towering like a wall of varied color. A carriage to thousands of old, worn books, whose pages were yellowed and smoked with age, and whose spines gently carried a decade’s worth of dust. The library housed hundreds of bookshelves identical to this, each bearing their own assortment of works, with their own unique subject. But this one concealed more. If you looked passed the outer layer, where our eyes are always immediately drawn, and peered into the space above each row of books – which is about an inch tall, before reaching the next shelf above – and considered all of that space together, and if you focused on that long enough, you would see a faint silhouette of a person staring right back.
Simon had been coming to this library for some eight consecutive days now. It wasn’t hard for him, as it was an easily accessible landmark, just two blocks from his flat. He grew up there, in that very flat, his entire life. It became an inheritance of sorts. Yet no one really had any recollection of his family, as most all of his neighbors were new, having recently moved in – to the best of his knowledge at least. He was the native. Although Simon was pushing the better part of 60 years now, he still seemed an infant when compared to the age of this monumental neighborhood library.
His flat was bleak. Empty. It barely contained enough furniture to be distinguished from a walk-in closet. So he enjoyed his frequent trips to the library. The passion that a book’s knowledge evoked from him was his life. More than that actually. The library – an avenue for endless enrichment – was his way to transcend his lot. His flat. His life. He thrived off of this routine. Simon was known to often say that “the library is to my soul what my birth was to my body.” For him, the walk from the flat to the library – those two, quick blocks – was a rebirthing ritual.
However, these last eight days were spent not in joy, but in frustration. Maybe that’s too light of a word. It was more of a loathing and a hatred into which he found himself wedged. And he claimed that all of this was the student‘s fault.
About two weeks ago – ten days to be precise – Simon had gone to his library to pull a book on physics, namely Orders and Effects: How We Find Ourselves. However, as he couldn’t find it on the shelf, where the system told him it would be, he proceed immediately to confront the librarian and ask her. Claiming that the book hadn’t been checked-out, she instructed him toward other books, or to simply call back at another time. Discontent with her solutions, Simon simply turned, and walked back upstairs, and scavenged once more through the entire Physics section. However, as he turned onto that aisle, knowing the book to be gone, he felt as if the aisle appeared to stretch on indefinitely.
Furious at the work he would now have to approach, his face grew more red with each new thought: could someone have selfishly stolen it? or lazily just have tucked it into a random shelf? “The nerve of these fools!” Simon thought. “If they are going to mistreat these jewels, then they forfeit themselves. I’s my right. Not theirs!”
Hours passed as he scoured the shelves, until he accepted what you and I would call defeat. Although, for Simon, this was no mere defeat. It was an insult. He passed unnoticed behind each carrel’s reader, examining the work being done – searching for the insubordinate that had beaten him, and robbed him of his book. It was the second day that he found him: the student.
He decided to wait. Wait for the student to be done. For the book to be returned. For his rightful time. So, he went behind the bookshelf he had become all too familiar with recently, where the book was expected to rest. However, Simon was out-waited. The student never moved. Simon, needing to leave, as his youth was no more, begrudgingly forced himself to depart before the student relinquished the prize. This was an ongoing routine. Day after day, he watched. And day after day he was bested. He could never get there early enough, nor stay late enough. The student…
“He sits there as some simpleton, unmoved, hunched over like a ghoul, slaving over a few sentences in the time it would’ve taken me to read the chapter’s whole. I know that I am old, and have my own delays, but the lad’s tempo is surely in need. In fact, I can claim in good conscience that I haven’t even seen him turn a single page. It’s been days, and I haven’t seen him move one single digit. But I have been in wait too long I suppose, for who could sit there idle for this amount of time. Look, see, his pages have been moved. The book is being worked through. So, the student‘s hand must move as swift as his daft thoughts – at a snail’s pace.
He sits there in the same jacket, covering his arms, hands, and body – hiding behind the collar as though he wishes to go unchecked – the fool; the same pants, which seem to be a bit dingy, loosely hanging over his shoes in an extremely disrespectful manner; and the same knit-hat which he’s pulled far too low for any respectable client to carry themselves in such a place. You cannot even see his eyes! Although, that could be due to the untamed, gritty hair that suspends out from under the hat, like filthy worms emerging from their dank cave in hopes of finally being cleansed.
Ha! That might be too much. I see that I’m being very biased in my assumptions. But the fool sits there with something that’s not his! It’s not for him. His capacity to comprehend that work is the same as asking a map to tell you the history of Rome – it’s just not made for that.
So I wait. I wait for his ego to be filled. For my book to be returned. For appreciation to rightfully be had. And no. These other books won’t do. In fact, I’ve mastered most of them anyways. Most all of these bookshelves, I know as well, better than anyone, probably. I’ve devoted my life to mathematics, law, literature, economics, philosophy, religion, and now physics. I could discuss these topics with anybody, better than any university professor. How often I’ve been here instructing visitors toward the right book for them, helping them achieve that which is out of their reach. As they come in from the cold days of work or college, with hopeless questions about their assignments, who is it they go to? Him? Some student?! No. After the librarian loses thought, I am there. I go to them. When they seem lost amongst all of this knowledge… when all they want is to get to their destination faster… I do this. I do all of this for them! They need it.
And now what? Am I to have a lesser, weakened knowledge on this topic when someone is in need, all because of some selfish student who’s now squandered both my time and my patience?! I’ve heard it said ‘why worry about strengthening something your 10% in, as you’ll probably only move it to 20%, when you could move something your 90% in to a 100.’ That’s what he’s doing! He’s trying to get a 20%, while simultaneously denying me perfection!
It’s folly to stubbornly think that others aren’t in need of something that has been deemed a communal item! Honestly, to some degree, I don’t necessarily need the book myself, as I’m more than equipped to handle discussions in this field. But the questions must be asked ‘Why pursue enhancement if you can’t reach perfection?’ And this is where I am. I’ve co… what?! Is he moving? Yes! He’s decided to leave.”
Simon quickly moved out from his refuge, out from behind the shelf, to confront the studentonly to notice that he wasn’t leaving… just standing up.
“Yes?” the student asked.
“Yes, what?” snapped Simon.2
“You’ve been there for hours today – not to mention the other days – watching me. I’ve barely been able to read with any tranquility this entire week for your intrusiveness.”
“You’ve?… I’ve simply been waiting for my book.”
“You’ve been stewing over the library’s book. Well, I’d only known that you’ve been stewing. Your care of the book is new to me.”
“I have not. You know nothing of me. I’m calm, a distinguished man. Your elder in fact. Known as a gentleman by many in this neighborhood. Sure, I’ve been waiting, maybe even hovering at times. And to that I apologize. But to accuse me of not controlling my emotions…”
“You haven’t. I don’t mean to sound the mystic, but it’s just obvious. You’re attitude is what gave your presence away. You stood there, peering at me from behind your mask.”
“Your bookshelf. You stand there fully confident in yourself, while the bookshelf distorts your presence, but here, with its being removed, you seem unsure. It’s clear that you thought the bookshelf made you feel as some unmoved sentinel, or lion, waiting to pounce – as you’ve just proven by my slightest movement. But in reality, sir, your anger has betrayed you. Instead of the library’s self-appointed “stoical sentry”, your emotions have brewed into an infection, like an untreated cut.”
“This ‘mask‘, as you call it, is my strength. It’s my work.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s a farce.”
“It’s only a farce if it’s a lie. I do not lie to anyone. I stand true in what I proclaim, instructing others in the soundness that I’ve earned. And, I think we should move past the ‘sirs’. My name is Simon.”
“Your name is just as much a facade as your claims of honesty. You might be ‘honest’ with others, just as your name might be ‘Simon’. But that doesn’t confirm that you’re true, nor does ‘Simon’ identify who you truly are. I’ve watched you ‘Simon’. Until now, you’ve hardly shared this name with a soul, but you’ve been undeniably quick to divulge your trivia to anyone who would stay and listen. The sheer fact that you are so dedicated to reading one book, that you’d let your anger be seen as you have speaks volumes of your uncertainty and discontent. I hate to say it, but no one knows you, Simon – they only know what you know. How long have you lived here, Simon?”
“I… my whole life. And don’t te…”
“And yet, you say you’re known as the ‘gentleman’, while you hide in secret, and judge those around you. Simon, I don’t mind you having ‘your’ book. It, like three-forths of the ones from ‘your’ shelf, is riddled with contradictions. Know that I have never met you until now, but that you have watched me for more than a while. And that although you claim to want to be here to help others, your desire is plain… you desire for me to not continue my work, but end it, so that you might progress through telling me how to complete it. Do you see the problem here?”
The student faced the table and grabbed his journal, and his other possessions, and proceeded to put them all into his bag. He threw it over his shoulder, and began heading for the stairs. Simon, looking as though his entire world was chipping away all around him, yelled out “Hey, I know who I am! You are the judge. You are just a student. I am ‘Simon’! I know who I am.”
Seeing the sole book lying there on the desk, Simon quickly moved around to the table, and snatched it up in order to take it to the librarian for rental – but not before taking a moment to finally gaze at his prize – slightly mad, and with too much passion in his eyes. He was still speaking out to the student, exclaiming things like “I knows much!” and “How would it even be possible for me to not know myself?” Baffled at the student‘s insubordination, and now irate, Simon stood there demanding to be heard.
The student, however, was gone, no longer in range to hear the prideful old man’s blind explanations.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground ↩