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Ex Libris

by Daniel W. Galef

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

part 3

This was how I passed my days, which became months. But although I had renounced my claims to the universe, it evidently had not renounced its claims to me. Even a human being pretending not to be one is still a human being, and there were certain final necessities that I could not get from a book, or so I had thought initially. I should never have doubted Providence, which was, as a gambler at the cruel roulette would say, after a long streak finally “due.”

* * *

It is a little-repeated fact — probably kept hidden deliberately by the upper echelon of cordon-bleu chefs — that there is no earthly delicacy to compare with the complex flavor symphonies of a properly prepared book. Of course, it is no secret that bums habitually make meals of shoe leather either in harsh winters or in comedy films. This repast is presented as barely endurable, most likely because of the quality of the leather in a shoe possessed by a bum.

At the very least, this serves as ample illustration that leather, if boiled for some few days and expertly seasoned, is perfectly edible, and indeed certain tribesmen of Central Africa hold the hide of the animal to be that most succulent of all its various trappings, and so reserve it for holy days and the photographers of the National Geographic.

If tough, old, twice-renailed panels of the stuff, sweated through and stewed for too many years in the broth of a hobo’s corns and verrucas, is somehow in any minuscule capacity nourishing to the flesh, it is due to the preservative properties passed down among tanners of hide for millennia. In comparison, a fine, aged Morocco colophon, not clumsily beaten out from the rudest regions of the animal from whence hail two-penny workboots, but rather hand-crafted lovingly from the tenderest calves’ flesh and delicately marinated in exotic spirits before curing like an aged steak in the rarefied air of a library for some few decades — that is a dish to compare with any to be found on the table of a Morgan or an Astor.

And I would be deeply remiss were I to stop at the wonders of the cover-binding, without going on to tell you of the Lucullan feasts that are to be found as soon as the spine is cracked! The pages themselves, especially thin ones, such as are to be found in a large dictionary or Bible, possess very much the same consistency and nutritional quality as do tamale leaves, and are thus perfectly suited for the task of wrapping and roughage. When of a heavier stock, as in any commonplace encheiridion or book of verse, the method is to shred them with a paper-knife and steam them in a pencil basket over the radiator until they are indistinguishable from a bowl of vermicelli al dente.

Bookbinders’ paste, of course, is nothing but ordinary flour and water, and so is an indispensable staple in a library-dweller’s pantry. As a base, it makes for a hearty background in a bookworm and rubber-stamp goulash. As a dressing, it provides a zesty but not overpowering note in a salad of leaves from various translations of ancient authors. As a garnish, it is easily shaped into a variety of impressive and amusing forms that may be used to top a Christmas pudding composed of Dickens with diced Gospels to taste.

Did not Cicero in the Quaestiones write of the younger Cato “devouring” the books as he read them? Did not Socrates himself warn the tyro Hippocrates that he might gulp down philosophy like a feast, and in doing so perhaps overindulge himself? Did not the very first Man created eat of knowledge? I ate of this same tree, with no serpent to blame but myself.

And so in this way I meted out my humble but not uncomfortable existence, marking off the years by the periodical appearance on the shelf of the latest edition of The Farmer’s Almanack. It was in the pages of this same tome that one day, idly whiling away the hours until I was free from the inconvenience of human presence, I found the heading to my next chapter.

I was reading the astrological horoscopes with a sense of deliberate and indulgent credulousness. In my own — Libra, of course, although I take issue with at least one letter — I read the following doubtlessly coincidental but no less astute Delphic maxim: “The solution to your problems is right in front of you. What you seek you already hold. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

And it was from this trite and arithmetically dubious snippet that I drew, to my great shame, a divinatory purpose, a new inspirational energy of a power and essence that I had long since believed fled from my being. I felt myself on a great dramatic quest, with a vision of the Fleece, or the Grail, or something yet more precious, dangled tantalizingly before my darkness-drunk eyes.

* * *

In the better class of mystery novel, the solution is laid out in full for the reader to unearth before it is revealed by the sleuth in the last chapter. It is never stated explicitly, but lies in wait as an irrefutable analytic consequence of the preceding pages.

This became my understanding of the cosmos. I enjoyed the privilege of a god-like vantage over all human knowledge, privy not only to the most obscure and arcane revelations ever known to any man on earth, but further to many such that had never been known to any at all.

In a medieval treatise on botanical anomalies, I read accounts of miraculous cures from a mysterious plant never identified. Across the expanse of the library in an anthropological memoir, I discovered the exact description, never connected. A textbook on entheological synthesis revealed the provenance of the effect, in a passage never intended for the purpose. Elsewhere, in an ancient Babylonian pharmacopoeia, I correlated and confirmed all with a report of the same medicines from a similar draught extracted.

I took on the unanswered questions of science, history, mathematics, and philosophy as a hobby to while away long hours of otherwise unendurable proximity. I observed my old enemy the Universe from the comfort of my palatial drawing room, not as does the scientist through a microscope or spyglass, but through the million million books that were the bricks in the walls of my world and that became in turning the windows of it, each to a different and verdant landscape whose valleys and steppes I could mine to uncover all the riches of Hades and of Heaven, besides.

It should hardly have come as a surprise to me that, in my limited academic experience, I had seen the great lazy bulk of new discoveries born not from the telescope or trowel but from the library. Professor P. pieces together a new poem of Milton from a fragmented autograph. Lady Q. extrapolates a full catalogue of Alexandrian antiquities by carefully cross-indexing shipping manifests in an unlabeled manuscript in the Bodleian. Mr. B. uncovers the secret to immortality tucked into a romance novel as bookmark. The mad German legal scholar Georg Philipp Huschke discovers extinct creatures and undreamt-of divine revelations through the cabalistic study of ancient Roman constitutional law.

My resources were vast seas compared to his cozy cases of tort, and the fruits of my esoteric calculus unrestricted. I finally realized that I had unwittingly made my home in a microcosm, an architecture of axioms from which all else was trivial, a great universal encyclopedia that was simultaneously labyrinth and panopticon, in whose infinite truths and surely as infinite lies I could become lost for a million lifetimes.

So I labored to comprehend and conquer the whole of Creation not from the top down but from the bottom up, not by turning my spyglass (or microscope) outward towards that which is distant and empty, but rather by turning inward, inward to myself and inward to the Library, which was also myself, and thus to come to know myself, and it, and all else that is, was, and shall be, root and all and all in all.

Was it not written in that most ancient and primordial of books, the towering tablet of Smaragdine, that heaven is but a reflection of earth and vice-versa, each part containing the whole and the whole itself its own part? It was in these words spoken before the dawn of human enquiry by the Thrice-Majestic that I came to understand my lot.

I had run away from the world only to find it pressing in on me ever closer, whispering its secrets to me as I slept.

* * *

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel W. Galef

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