My article posted earlier today.
Randall S. Ellis
The world is as unstable as the pools and shallows
of Asuka River. Times change and things disappear:
joy and sorrow come and go; a place that once thrived
turns into an uninhabited moor; a house may remain
unaltered, but its occupants will have changed. The
peach and the damson tree in the garden say nothing---
with whom is one to reminisce about the past?
Arthur walked through the pale autumn moonlight, occasionally scattering the brittle leaves that covered the road of what had once been a prosperous suburban street. It never ceased to amaze him, even after ten years, how rapidly things had changed. How the sanguine middle class world of backyard barbecues, soporific evenings of television, and the religion of ever-increasing prosperity had dissolved before his eyes. On quiet residential streets like this one, middle class fathers had puttered about on Saturday mornings with power mowers cropping small patches of grass; and later perhaps had driven car loads of small urchins to crowded theaters suffused with the odors of popcorn and chocolate.
And now the cars stood derelict, their rusting hulks in evidence everywhere. The cinemas had now become palaces of worship: crowds of ragged, cold and hungry souls huddled before the flickering screen, upon which altar visions of Materialism Past alluringly danced before them. Hungers whetted by scenes of abundance groaned with pleasure and pain in the darkness, like aged lechers exciting appetites which must forever go unsatisfied.
Arthur had been lucky. His bookish temperament had spared him from the delusions of the frantic consumer culture into which he had been born. The siren call of ever greater consumption had never held sway over a soul more attracted to a mild asceticism.
In the world of his youth he had decidedly been the odd-man-out, and even now, he found little sympathy for the longings of contemporary mankind: their ardent desire that a cornucopia of televisions, appliances and automobiles, should once again grow fecund he treated as he would the delusion of a sick man or the ravings of a mad one.
It was this very indifference to the canon of faith upheld so rigorously by advertising and business, before which millions of the world had prostrated themselves, which had in the end saved him. While others had gone mad through despair and frustrated longing at even the thought of the gilded-sty running dry, he had sat quietly amongst his books, drinking coffee (of which he was inordinately fond) and taking his nightly walks, which he greatly relished. Embracing a life of voluntary poverty had meant that he had changed little while an entire world had convulsed about him.
An autumn wind rustled the elm leaves and he drew his scarf more tightly about him. He hesitated briefly, stared at the leaden October sky as a waft of smoke passed over the autumn moon, then breathed deeply of the scent of mulching leaves and walked on.
He looked about him at the tract houses which lined the street, their yards now denuded of trees (having long ago been cut for fuel), and grass had given way to vegetable gardens. The “picture windows” were now boarded over to conserve heat and the paint was peeling from bare walls.
He approached a long familiar house of weathered gray brick. Weeds, laden with autumn frost surrounded it, giving it a forlorn appearance. Arthur was greeted at the door by the aged Professor Hardisty, dressed in his usual baggy trousers and shabby jacket. He looked all of his sixty-five years with his gray hair and beard.
The interior was dimly lit by a small coal fire which cast a pale glow over a room filled to the bursting with books. Books lined the walls, were piled on the floor in tumbling heaps. What few articles of furniture there where, a couch and a table, were also repositories of books. There was that mellow odor of dusty books and mingled with it that of brewing coffee: a heady combination for any booklover.
Animated speech greeted them as they entered the kitchen. Five men in threadbare attire were gathered about an old kitchen table. Friday evenings for years they had met at their various lodgings to discuss books and the past. Antiquarians and bibliophiles, they chattered endlessly over books and ideas that had long ceased to be of importance to anyone but themselves.
“I remember the secondhand bookshops,” said Larkin, “row upon row of books, crammed indiscriminately from floor to ceiling, and all of them begging to be purchased….and for so little, really. How many afternoons I have spent rummaging amongst the stacks, oblivious to all the world! I would purchase a few chosen volumes, and with exhilarating euphoria that comes of finding a long-sought book return to my lodgings. I had something of a ritual that went along with getting new books. I would put some coffee on to brew, then settle myself in a snug over-stuffed chair before the fire and contemplate each volume, longingly wiping the dust of neglect from their covers. Then later, between sips of coffee, I would lovingly turn their pages dreaming of that even greater enjoyment that would come from reading them.”
There was a general sigh of assent from around the table, the others had spent many such evenings.
Books were now things of the past. Paper shortages had dwindled the torrent of publications to a mere trickle, and that mainly of government publications, massive volumes of statistics and law.
Old books had suffered an even worse fate. They were now sold on street corners by ragged hawkers to heat the ramshackle homes of suburbia. Occasionally the group would get wind of a cache of books discovered somewhere in the city and would attempt to procure them before hawkers and scavenging suburbanites caught the scent.
Professor Hardisty shuffled about the table filling mugs with hot coffee, which sent tiny spirals of steam up into the kitchen air. Homes were now impossible to properly heat because of shoddy construction and the scarcity of fuel.
“I shall have to make more coffee,” said Professor Hardisty, as he picked up a small plastic bucket and walked to the back door. He stopped briefly at the threshold and peered into the darkness, trying to discern if muggers were lurking near the community well.
“Professor Hardisty will outlast us all,” said Saunders as he watched the aged figure slowly make his way along a well-trodden dirt path.
Professor Hardisty was a superanuated professor of literature, who had formerly taught at a state college. When the Great Decline had begun he was retired on a small pension. He had spent the last ten years reading books and writing unpublished essays.
Arthur had been a clerk in a secondhand bookshop, one of the few remaining even then. It was housed in a large Victorian brownstone, weathered with that patina of age which complements so well a bookshop. Arthur made little money but it had been the happiest time of his life. Days spent rummaging about searching for obscure volumes to satisfy a patron's needs, or even the mundane tasks, which others might have found objectionable, such as dusting books and shelving new acquisitions, he took a real pleasure in performing. Autumn afternoons with the pale sunlight filtering through the book filled windows fronting the shop, and he behind the counter leafing through a book. And later, after closing, he would make his way through the leaf strewn streets with a pleasant autumn wind biting at his face to his room above an old clothing store. Here he would make a frugal but satisfying repast of buttered bread and coffee. They were fond memories.
It was here at the bookshop that Arthur had met the men seated about the table now. Professor Hardisty on hands and knees scouring the bottom shelves for old Victorian novels. Saunders complaining in his timid and ineffectual way about the dearth of good books to be had, and then, going off into the stacks mumbling to himself, to immerge an hour later with three or four books in hand. These were memories now faded into the past.
Arthur silently gained their attention by placing a large package wrapped in tattered brown paper on the table. There was no mistaking its content: it was a book, and as such became the immediate object of curiosity. Gingerly Arthur unwrapped it laying aside the brown paper for reuse.
It was a large book enclosed in a frayed slipcase. Arthur turned the spine toward those seated that they might read the title thereon: The People of the Abyss by Jack London.
“I’ve not seen a copy of that in years,” said Larkin, “not since the libraries closed. It was difficult to find even then, I remember.”
The book was passed around the table as delicate and loving hands admired its cream-colored, acid-free paper and beautiful jet-black typography.
“How ironic in a way,” said Larkin, “that the living conditions Jack London found so appalling and inhumane are now those of the majority of mankind.”
Arthur glanced about the ragged figures huddled at the table and thought to himself how true the statement was. In the sputtering glow of the candle he looked deeply into the hardened, unshaved faces, creased and worn by years of worry over food and warmth: the plight of modern man. It was the face of the present; it was the face of the future.
The hour grew late and one by one they went into the darkness of the autumn night to return to cold lodgings with shabby furnishings. But Arthur knew they were the fortunate ones with their books and dreams of the past.
As he walked from the house Arthur could just see Larkin on his bicycle receding into the distance; the autumn leaves in clouds swirling about his worn gray overcoat. Once Larkin had been a librarian, long ago, when there were libraries. It must have been six years ago, reminisced Arthur, when the last library had shut its doors, the books having long since gone to stoke the heating stoves of the city. Larkin now worked at odd jobs, as did all of them, picking up small change here and there. And then, too, he scavenged about the deserted parts of the city as did everyone else. But this, necessarily, was becoming progressively less fruitful as the years wore on.
He walked on in the pale moonlight, his eyes surveying the cracks in the buckled sidewalk where the weeds had begun to force their way through. He must be careful here, for several times the loose soles of his shoes had been torn irreparably on the jagged cracks; and shoes were becoming impossible to find. The new shoes, made of an artificial leather cardboard- like substance wore out within a month, and anyway, only the rich could afford them. Yet Arthur didn’t worry greatly about this, for the Friday evenings always put him in a good mood. It was nice even for a mere hour or two to be around others who spoke of books and things past: it made the dreary monotony of the present more bearable. It had been any especially good evening, really. The ersatz coffee tasted good and the conversation was memorable. And then he had the weekend before him, always pleasant to contemplate. It was true that he must devote most of Saturday morning to searching for wood to burn in the heating stove. Yet, even this pastime was enjoyable mostly. He would return to his rooms with its books and overstuffed chair. There he would sit before the fire reading Lamb’s Essays of Elia or Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody. Yes, life was not so bad now, not as it had been at first during the famines and strikes. Then there were riots and all the world seemed crumbling before his eyes. Now people like himself and Larkin and Hardisty lived relatively well. He drew the tattered overcoat more closely about him and walked on into the autumn night.