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The Reading List
Let's try some fiction for a change. A short story about time and libraries.
This old man sits on the bench, and he is not feeding the pigeons, no.
He wears a gray wool suit, gray slacks, gray face, even the necktie. His gray hat wears a bright red feather, the only color on him. The bench is painted green, and where the paint has flaked the wood beneath is gray. Gray the color of the pigeons he is not feeding. The pigeons all hope he will die soon so he will drop his sandwich. They watch him with unchanging pushpin eyes, wishing a steel-gray end to him. He holds the sandwich, unwrapped but uneaten, and smokes, and the ash that falls from the cherry tip of his cigarette is as gray as grey.
Pigeon eyes are as blank as greed, whether they are being fed or no. Unnerving. Since their eyes will not change no matter what he does, the old man sees no point in feeding them.
This old man has a certain place where he can go.
He has his room, and he has the sandwich. That is all he has perhaps and the sandwich is of greater value to him, now that he is old and almost wise. The rest has gone: friends and foes and wife and child and children-who-may-have been. Potential lovers. Countless sunsets. The cities he would have visited—Paris, Rome, Athens, Calcutta, Seoul, Belgium, Rio. Timbuktu. He would have visited Timbuktu. He would have ridden roller coasters. He would have taken up painting. He knows so damn much about painting. He knows how roller coasters work, and how to fix a car, and why Napoleon failed in Russia. He knows how the stock market works. He knows how his circulatory system works. He has no idea how his room works.
This old man—but unsure of how old, impossible to know—waits for his lost wife, and the efficient second hand of his watch tips out the time until she will be here. He stands suddenly as if to leave, effecting a half-interested scurry of pigeons, then sways, casting about with his eyes as if unsure of a course. He knows she won’t believe him. She won’t—how could she? Still, he hopes he can make her understand. If she will understand, then he may have a better place than his room to spend these final years. Perhaps then he’ll write. If she doesn’t understand ... well. He hopes she will understand.
With meticulous care he sits, and the pigeons gather around once more. His sandwich, purchased from a nearby deli, is stuffed with cold cuts and coleslaw. The pigeons don’t care what it is. “Things that can conceivably be swallowed” is the only category that interests them. True. They’ve been seen pecking cigarette butts into bite-sized pieces.
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One rainy day, at the age of ten, Cheswick Murchfeld came upon a set of Encyclopedia Britannica and, as he sorted through the pages, became inescapably aware of the near totality of his ignorance. As a countermeasure to this distressing but inescapable truth, he took a vow to read every book ever written, giving himself until his twenty-first birthday to finish.
At sixteen, older and wearier and wiser in the ways of the autodidact, Cheswick abandoned the unrealistic deadline, and began a list curating only those books deemed essential for a more complete knowledge. But the curation process proved excruciating work, devouring time, posing fiendish puzzles, forcing excruciating judgments. For example: translations were a necessary evil. To learn a multitude of languages felt wildly impractical, given the constraints. But which translation to select? On what authority’s recommendation? And how to select the best authority? And on and on. Cheswick completed his reading list in October of his twentieth year, a tightly-typed stack as thick as a porterhouse. The grand undertaking itself commenced in November of the same year with a primer on speed-reading technique.
One night, years in, Cheswick roused from deep slumber to the dismayed realization he would never finish. Impossible. His aspirational pace, presuming six hours a day of study, remained a benchmark untouched. Untouched? Never even approached, not with the inconveniences life contrived at every instance. Some years earlier, for example, some pigheaded professor assigned him material not on his list, highhandedly refusing to capitulate to reasoned petition, and so Cheswick had thrown off the yoke of university forever—momentarily forgetting, in the heat of his pique, his other entanglements. Now, toiling at the best work he could discover—repetitive paperwork drudgery—he cursed the prejudices of society’s strictures, which cruelly forced him to steal scraps around the edges of the week for his headier pursuits.
My God, time spent at work alone! But if that were all of it, still it might be endured. Somehow, before his universal extraction, he had managed (how he could not say) to saddle himself with a wife, and then (to his everlasting woe) that wife had gotten herself with child, and both now presented an unending chain of needful petition and expensive requirement. These accouterments he’d acquired blithely, romantically, seemingly without conscious decision, during those early days when Cheswick still waded in youth’s happy illusion of immortality.
His true pace—a quick calculation—would deliver him less than a third of the way to his destination by the age of eighty. The list lay fallow for weeks at a stretch; expectation and duty piled up faster than they could be pushed away. Money choked time, and time choked Cheswick. The little squalling cabbage needed formula and diapers, and Shirley’s blood was too thin to do without heat in the wintertime—so she claimed—but she never cared how his studies suffered. How unendurable, to contemplate the knowledge never attained! At the dewy age of twenty-six, mortality at last settled a measure of its gravid weight upon him. Each hour wasted was another iron link wearing him down, and each text still unread a manacle.
This old man has unwrapped his sandwich and begun eating it with small and deliberate bites, chewing carefully, thinking of those early quandaries.
His room saved him from all that, at least. He found it by accident. You can find it by accident too, if you look deep in the Mid-Manhattan Public Library, and if you are diligent and lucky. The door isn’t hidden, but you need to go far back in the archival tiers, past periodicals unseen since they were bound together into huge books and placed in the stacks, untouched since the publication date.
People live back there, and nobody knows it. Cheswick knows it. He’s met seven of them. Stan, Mel, Trayne, Y.B. Three others didn’t give their name, fearing Cheswick was a registrar from the census come to betray them once more to the aliens who had implanted profane devices in their organs. They stay through winter, avoiding frostbite, seemingly unconcerned about discovery, protected by the public’s amalgamated disinterest in obscurity. They’re unconcerned, too, about rumors of a project to digitize periodical archives statewide, which would mean liquidation of the stacks of physical media—the walls of their winter home.
This indifference is understandable; before the rumored digitizing project there had been a rumored microfilm project, but now the microfilm project is as dead as microfilm itself, while the stacks remain. They’ve been living on borrowed time for nearly twenty years, these stacks, longer than Trayne has been alive. She was born back here. She’s lost track of time, too.
The old man eats his sandwich, but he doesn’t taste it.
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One Saturday morning not long after his distressing revelation, Cheswick arrived at the library with his list and a sleeping bag rolled into his backpack, snuck away from home until Monday, ostensibly do mandatory weekend work: two shifts, 12-hours each at least, sleep on the office floor to save on commuting time and expense—an invention, and his occasional custom, to create some space in life for the reading list. He skipped up the steps, whistled through the aisles, selected his books (after consulting the list), and made his way to the most secluded corner of the library for a blissful weekend of uninterrupted reading.
The archives consisted of nine levels connected to one another by a narrow spiral staircase. Cheswick accessed them from an unassuming doorway on the main floor, which led onto the middle archival level, and from which he could choose to climb or descend. On previous excursions, he had merely gone to the first available unoccupied reading room, but today, desiring an even greater anonymity, the allure of being secreted in the bowels of one of the world’s largest libraries, hidden beneath a totality of books, he descended.
Upon reaching the lowest level, he discovered not a room like those above—narrow stretches running along the side of the building—but rather a gargantuan room the exact size of the library proper, broken only by the occasional load-bearing pillar and rank after rank of bookshelf. Each shelf packed, like a sausage in a casing, with obscure and defunct magazines: Phrenology Today (1890-1962), the American Association of Haberdashers Journal (AAHJ, 1874-present), Scrimshander Quarterly (1813-1890), International Journal of Mayhem Adjustment (1921-1925). None of this on his list, thank God. The sight of so many unread texts weakened him. Only their inessential status prevented a quick tip toward madness.
Reading tables extruded from two sides of every third pillar, but Cheswick headed to the back in search of any of the sort of closet-like reading rooms that could be found in the narrower rooms above. The rooms upstairs were rarely checked for occupancy by security before the library was locked up at night; it seemed even less likely these subterranean ones would be. The perfect place to read unmolested by human contact, to spread the sleeping bag in the dwindling hours when his eyes could take no more, for Cheswick had discovered it was easy to have oneself shut up in a public library with a flashlight to read by, and plenty of batteries.
But there were no reading rooms near the back, just boxes and bound collections of periodicals in high stacks pressed against the far wall. Damn.
But wait ... the boxes had been stacked near the low ceiling. And there, in the gap … was that the lintel of a doorway? It was conceivable—wasn’t it?—there might be some reading rooms, long abandoned, hidden back there. Certainly worth the effort, for a chance to discover the most secluded spot in the library. Cheswick grunted as he pulled the topmost box off the stack and set it down, bending carefully at the knees. This effort uncovered more of the doorframe. Cheswick smiled, clearing the rest of the boxes quickly and deliberately, stacking the never-read detritus neatly to the side, until the whole entryway lay unobstructed. He hefted his backpack, opened the door, and cursed, loudly. Oh, balls.
The room itself was filled with boxes.
Cheswick removed his coat and rolled up his sleeves, setting to work quickly and deliberately. He began to sweat, a state he detested, but the room was small and soon it was his, and a more romantic study cave he could not imagine. Based on the dates scrawled upon them, the boxes had been there longer than he had been alive. Cheswick imagined himself curled up in there, the lone kernel hidden inside a lost nut secreted beneath the leafy floor of the unmapped heart of a forgotten forest.
He read until hunger roused him. Standing, he grimaced first at the stiffness of his back—better rustle up a chair from somewhere—and then, bemused, at his watch. He estimated he’d been reading for five hours, but the hands had stopped at half-past nine. Dammit; and he’d just wound it. A lucky thing Shirley wasn’t expecting him tonight, else by afternoon it’d be up the stairs every thirty minutes to the atrium, checking the large wall clock, making sure he wasn’t losing track of time. In this way fabricated business trips were superior to fabricated sick days; they could more easily absorb variance and mishap.
And what time was it? Cheswick shook his laggard watch, as if trying to rouse a reluctant child. Late enough to have earned an awful hunger, anyway. His knees popped as he stood.
Hitting the pavement outside, he muttered a curse; the hot dog man was absent from his customary spot. Could he possibly have been engrossed long enough to miss the lunch shift entirely? Yes, look—the sun had left noon well behind, had dipped already behind building cover. Cheswick sighed. No matter; he had two packed lunches in his bag back in the room. He’d eat while he read. But still … Cheswick couldn’t say why ... there was something distinctly incorrect, something atmospheric. He shook himself, shrugged, and slouched back up the steps.
On his way back through the lobby, he noticed something else odd; the gigantic lobby clock showed half-past nine, as well. Nor was it stopped. Rather, the four-foot second hand jolted right along, second by second, marking the passing moments. Cheswick, glancing at his wrist, observed a new mystery: his watch had returned to life, if indeed ever it had stopped. The movements of its thin second hand matched those of its immense cousin, quiver for lurch. This suggested that the time was correct … but this was impossible. Wasn't it?
By his estimate, he’d read hundreds of pages already—two hundred, maybe three. How early did you arrive? But the doors don’t open until eight. Cheswick shook his head. Take the facts for what they are: the time is the time, and you’ve read what you have read. Perhaps, he mused, after long practice at reading for speed, after tedious incremental gains, he was enjoying a sudden evolutionary leap forward in ability. Had he been using a new technique? He couldn’t recall. Still, he was ravenous, as if he had been working for long hours. Some new intensity must be responsible, Cheswick decided, a heretofore unrealized utilization of brainpower increasing metabolism. Eagerly, he trotted back down to the tiers and was reading before he’d even begun eating his sandwich. Encouraged by early success, amazed at his newfound stamina and tenacity, he read Middlemarch through from middle to end. Setting down the completed tome, blinking gravel-eyed in the late of night, he realized he’d skipped dinner; became suddenly aware of the gnawing he’d ignored for hours. Ravenous, he gobbled a second sandwich before clearing the chair from the room and spreading his sleeping bag onto its secluded floor, and passing into deep and unrepentant sleep.
Cheswick awoke in a panic, cursing himself. He could feel in his neck and shoulders he had been insensible far longer than he’d scheduled. Last night he’d been exhausted and heedless and had forgotten to set the tiny alarm clock he’d brought along. Time wasted, time wasted!—but how much time? A glance at his watch informed him that, by extraordinary coincidence, it was once again nine-thirty, but absent a window on the basement level, he couldn’t tell if it was morning or night. Had he somehow slept all the day through? No—this was the cotton-ball notion of someone who has slept too long and woken too fast. Morning, he realized, it has to be morning. A fellow doesn’t sleep twenty hours.
Standing, he discovered he was hungry again, with no sandwich remaining in his backpack. Ah! Cheswick grimaced. Sunday morning already. He’d have to waste an hour grabbing a bite for breakfast, and then no more than eight hours, at best, before he’d be expected at home. He could call, of course, claim some delay, some inconvenience: the boss unreasonable, the client demanding. But that card had been played so many times. Suspicion was leaking into his marriage.
Long ago, they’d played at suspicious acts together, as a game. Pretended at being strangers to one another, crafted complex fantasies to play out, as if they were other than they were. Some secret assignation, perhaps, following a long correspondence that had flowered from professional detachment into illicit love. He’d drop a secret message, signed “anonymous admirer,” into his own mailbox, with the details of the proposed meeting: he’d wear a hat with a red feather so she’d know him, and she a bright blue dress. But for too long these days, Cheswick knew, he kept his lies to himself, told them to her on behalf of his reading list, burdened her with the weight of making herself not know the untruth. Almost he could see the incremental slump in her shoulders as she adjusted to the burden of each lie he told. No, Cheswick decided, there was no other choice—he was at risk of discovery. He would need to leave the library today, and in timely fashion.
He stumbled up the stairs and out into the world. There was a breakfast spot around the corner that wasn’t crowded and made a large and almost acceptable egg sandwich with the requisite speed. Cheswick made for it, selected a table covered with a spray of unbussed crumbs and a newspaper. He recognized the newspaper’s front page from yesterday. Some fool had bought it and then abandoned it, still neatly folded, clearly unread, and it had in the meanwhile managed to go throughout the previous day unmolested by one of the greasy spoon’s handful of patrons.
Cheswick riffled through it—let’s see how the Kicks did Friday— but a perturbed voice
accompanied by a taptaptap on his shoulder interrupted him. He turned to find a short tough looking guy with a chin like a milk jug glaring at him.
Hey buddy, how about you get your own paper first.
Guy can’t take a leak without somebody steals his paper?
I . . . I stole yesterday’s newspaper from you?
Don’t get cute, buddy. Yesterday’s paper, don’t get cute. Just get the hell out of my chair.
Cheswick opened his mouth to protest, but then, aware of his limitations in a fight, thought better. He muttered an apology, stumbled over to the counter, and sat, feeling the tough’s eyes on his neck, studying the crookedly applied lamination of the counter—a cheap design suggesting pink marble.
The cook, visibly amused by the recent altercation, ignored him for a while in favor of the skillet, leaving Cheswick to puzzle over the exchange ... yesterday’s paper, don’t get cute …
At the far end of the counter an old guy in suspenders and highwaisted wool slacks goggled through coke-bottle glasses and dunked his toast into his orange juice. Exactly midpoint between them, another newspaper splayed, seemingly abandoned. Cheswick, hesitant, reached for it but didn't take hold until he'd caught the old fellow's attention.
Be my guest, sonny.
Cheswick hooked it and scanned the header. Sure enough, the date read Saturday. Yesterday’s paper. Wasn’t it? Cheswick fretted. You lost track of time yesterday morning. Did you do it again? What is wrong with you?
Finally the cook swung around.
What’ll it be?
Egg sandwich, bacon, cheddar.
The cook nodded, and Cheswick, girding himself for more abuse, took a deep breath and asked
What ... ah, day is it?
The cook shot him a weary look—great, another kook. Cheswick shrugged and gave what he hoped was not a nervous laugh.
I’m just forgetful is all. My wife says I’d lose my own head if it weren’t—
Yeah. That’s the one after Friday. Sunday comes next most weeks.
Cheswick whispered this, soft enough the cook may not have heard. He inhaled, but then dizziness took him and he couldn’t remember how to exhale. Everything was vivid. The colors. The realness of it. His hands, gripping the counter—that was real. Touching the counter top—this was real. He could hear his watch, very real, the tick tick tick of the second hand. On the back of his neck, he felt the sweat go. But how, he wondered. But how, but how, but how.
Meanwhile the cook was enjoying himself.
Sure, that’s the general progression. At least, that’s how I learned it in school. We could always get a calendar out and check—
No. That won’t be necessary.
Yes. Thank you.
Anything else? The year? The president?
Cheswick, struck with inspiration, said
Yes, one thing, actually. A second sandwich for the road.
The first sandwich was delicious. He was nearly finished when something sailed over his shoulder and landed on the plate like a dead pigeon. Cheswick gave a small shriek before he realized it was the newspaper he’d nearly unintentionally stolen—today’s newspaper. The newspaper still current this morning. Which was, it seemed, Saturday morning. And how long, Cheswick wondered, could this Saturday morning be made to last?
The lantern-jawed guy gave him a firm smack, a bit mocking but not unfriendly, on one shoulder.
All yours, tough guy. Read up.
Cheswick threw the newspaper aside. The second sandwich arrived, wrapped in brown paper, and Cheswick whistled a jaunty tune as he left the diner, giddy but seized suddenly with a wild hope. At the library he saw that he’d been gone little more than a half hour; the clock read ten after ten. When he got to his room he consulted his list, selected the next book, and settled in. The second sandwich he left outside the room, still in the wrapper, still warm. The hands of his watch, he noticed without surprise, were now still and silent, back here in what he was beginning to think of as his room.
He read for hours until the call of hunger rousted him, at which point Cheswick opened the door for his sandwich, which was delicious, and, as expected, still warm.
He had not failed to notice, that for the brief moment his hand extended through the doorway to collect his meal, the second hand of his watch, now silent again, had briefly continued to tick its way through time’s course. When he finally got hungry again, he left the room and climbed the stairs, barely even glancing up at the clock in the lobby still showing half past nine. He returned to the diner, where the cook glanced at him skeptically.
You forget something?
One more sandwich, same as before, Cheswick said evenly, fighting the urge to fall into delirious laughter. He could see the paper on the counter. Saturday’s paper. Today’s paper, hot off the presses.
Jesus, three in one morning? You eat a lot for a skinny guy.
Dropped the other one, Cheswick told him in a faraway voice. A dog got it.
Cheswick found as he walked away, clutching his sandwich, that his thoughts had become very clinical and practical. You’ll need all your savings. You’ll need a loan. You’ll need to study to discover what food is cheapest, most sustaining. Clothes built for durability and comfort. You’ll need something to hold the food and water. You’ll need to find someone who can deliver it. Storage for your sustenance—don’t even think of it as food. Stack it right outside so you only use seconds, not minutes. Furniture for the room. A cot. Small desk. Good lamp. A couple weeks to plan, at least. Then go back home— this afternoon—to start putting it into effect.
You’ll tell Shirley the boss let you off early. She’ll be so pleased.
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This old man has finally read everything on his list. He finished all of it while his watch-hands lay still as etchings, as cave-drawings. Cave drawings were the first novels. He wasn’t able to read any cave drawings, of course, but he read it somewhere, this opinion about cave drawings. He remembers much more of what he has read than he would have thought possible. He learned the art of taking extensive notes for each book and that has helped.
All the notes are back in his room, all except the one he furtively dropped into his own mailbox, from an anonymous admirer.
Soon he hopes his wife will be here, curious to understand why he has been missing for so many weeks, and then perhaps she will believe him. He hopes she will come here, to this park, their favorite meeting place, where his letter said he’d be. He prays she will be understanding. He knows she will be young.
For a moment he thinks he sees her, and then he knows he has; a bright blue dress coming up the drive and a worried face. Has she discovered the money gone? She must have. He’ll have to try to explain. She’ll have to understand. I only did what I had to. It’s what I always wanted, always needed. She knew about the reading list. I talked about it for years and years and… This old man has not finished his sandwich, but his face has gone quite gray and his hunger has flown.
A terrible thought has occurred to him.
With trembling fingers, while there’s still time, he reaches up and plucks the red feather from his hat, hides it in his pocket. She comes near now, and looks around with something approaching desperation, for something she clearly isn’t finding. It’s just her and him and the pigeons, and finally her eyes settle on him, an old man, and nearly wise. She looks at him and he can hardly breathe. She moves on, goes far, then comes near. Glances at her watch again and again. Fingers through her hair.
Excuse me, she asks him, finally. Have you been sitting here long?
Not terribly long, he says. An hour, maybe.
You haven’t seen … by any chance, you haven’t seen a man wearing a … a red feather? In his hat?
The old man gives a long rattling sigh. No, he says. I can’t say that I have.
She sits beside him, and he sees that she is young and very beautiful. That son of a bitch, she says. That son of a bitch. Then she cries.
I’m awful sorry, he says, trying to decide whether or not to reach out a comforting arm. I’m awful sorry miss.
A lean dog shuffles by, and the man absent-mindedly feeds him the greasy end of the sandwich as the pigeons look in blank horror at their loss. The old man has a horror of his own, and the young woman in the blue dress, perhaps growing curious once again, can see his distress. She looks at him with pity, remembering there are others with problems that she can know nothing about.
I have to go, the old man thinks. I have to go. My God, I nearly forgot! Think of all the books written since I began.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He built this city, he built this city on rock n’ roll.