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Ex Libris

by Daniel W. Galef

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


In time, probably through that mysterious psychological mechanism exploited by Stanislavski and his cultists, I began to truly feel as if I were a book. And is it truly so strange for a man to be a book? Of all the myriad ontically dubious entities he has claimed to be — deity, demon, animal, ghost, machine — I recalled antique musings of forked radishes and blown-up bladders, and one ancient apocryphon relating to Diogenes and a plucked chicken — surely a book is closest. How truly Plutarch titled his Lives! Nowhere, from the dead lump of statuary to the even deader lump of man-shaped meat in a stone sarcophagus, are the persons of the departed more accurately and vitally preserved than in a book. This has been known intuitively from antiquity.

The Byzantine chronicler Zonaras writes of a purported ancient emperor of the East who upon his death had himself made into a book: his life’s-work, a great encyclopedia, bound in a single great volume from the stuff of his body. It was believed that in this way he would not truly die, because everything that he was would be used up in the making of it: his earthly flesh in the very length and breadth of the volume, and his soul in the letters of the page.

For forty years the king’s barber methodically harvested long skeins of royal locks when they had reached a suitable length, and in the neglected chambers of the harem where the king’s predecessors had once forgotten death, the air was choked with the whirring of spinning wheels and the chattering of lyre-back looms. For forty years the royal physicians tapped the king’s forearm each week on the sabbath — the blood was mixed with lampblack and gall to produce a rich atrament the color of the inside of the eyelids when looking at a flame.

When at last the king’s fleshy heart ceased to throb, his advisors were comforted that arrangements had been made, and no bloody war of succession need be organized.

With absurd and unfathomable reverence the king’s slaves flayed his body and sheared the locks from his head for the final time. It is a fact that even a respectably corpulent monarch has not the personal resources from which to manufacture one thousand leaves of nippleless vellum, and so it was fortunate for antiquarian scholarship if not for contemporaries that the king’s slaves were conscripted into the endeavor.

Ornamentations of polished bone, such as are commonly found on bookplates of that age, were fashioned in the shapes of stars and lunes and the letters of the Alphabet of Heaven. The hairs of the beard and of the pubis were intertwined with threads of silver and gold and used to embroider the book’s title, which was also its author.

While naturally copies of the work were distributed to every provincial capital, the original volume was locked away in the imperial library, where it continued its peaceful reign, with its former councillors hardly put-out to assume their new administrative roles as its trusted regents.

When the imperial library was torched during the Sack of Lucullus, some hieratic authorities — no more than a few schismatic heresiarchs — wished to record the king’s life (and thus his reign) in the new archives as finally concluding after some few ineffectual millennia. The majority, however, understood that the profane vessel of meat and bone was only ever symbolic, and that as long as the contents of the king were preserved in the copies made, his soul lived on.

The circumstances of the king’s composition, as indeed circumstances often do, overrode the facts that the encyclopedia itself was rather poorly written and spottily unreliable, even for its era. A Greek translation of unknown provenance discovered on the reverse of a palimpsest codex of Irenaeus is known to have survived at least into the Renaissance. It was the favorite acquisition of classicist, logician, and libertine Guilielmus Xylander, and was transferred from the university archives at Heidelberg to Göttingen in the early eighteenth century. The manuscript stopped appearing in catalogues of the collection after the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars. Thus it is unknown whether the emperor yet lives.

Certainly some will be unsatisfied that the vessel of the king was an encyclopedia and not, for example, a memoir or a book of poems. An encyclopedia seems a generic and impersonal type of work to aspire to become, and yet there is no doubt that the king’s choice was deliberate and calculated. It would not be spoken until Alexander said it of Aristotle that only in apparently authorless creation does the creator truly show. An uninterrupted and unselfish life’s endeavor, never swerving into vulgar polemicizing or autobiography, is the most intimate portrait of the soul there can be. Paraphrased and barbarized by a dozen translators and scholiasts, it is an almost certainly apocryphal epigram which has lost much in pith and more in vinegar, but still makes the rounds of fond tangential citations and irresponsibly cited epigraphy.

A painter sets out to paint the entire world, every stone and tree and flower, in infinite, perfect detail, works tirelessly on the most trivial minutiae, face pressed close to a canvas a mile high, or a million. After a duration that may not be entirely comprehensible, with the final twitch of a hair’s-breadth brushstroke imparting the uppermost feathery flake of snow on a mountaintop, the work is finished, and the painter steps back to view the painting as a single cohesive whole for the first time. And all the crags and fjords and continents come into view, and the entire world as it has been painted is one great image. But there is no atlas. Only a human face. It is a self-portrait. Such was the Encyclopedia of Emperor Zardanapalus.

I wrote that book anew from the fruit of the library, and a million others, and I saw it was good.

* * *

The lot of God is not a pleasant one. Unrestricted being was a greater punishment by far than the paltry restrictions I had escaped, and the knitted labyrinth of the human brain was not wrought to contain omniscience in its flimsy bowl of bone. I had filled the crevices in the world ten times over with knowledge possessed by no living human.

I rewrote lost epics and epoch-forging treatises of philosophy and astrology, the very existence of which had not been suspected since the time of Alexander. With the library itself as my Pharos guiding me, I rebuilt the Library of Alexandria brick by brick, as well as Pergamum, and Antioch, and Celsus, and Caliph al-Mansur’s great House of Wisdom, whose destruction by fire at the hands of the Mongols was marked by the Tigris River flowing black with ink for a fortnight.

But by far the greatest jewels of my collection were its novelties, a new tradition of monographical literature which was a Wunderkammer of every discipline. The staggering achievements of Newton were a stair-step beside the great sandstone cliff I had raised grain by grain. The foundations of Aristotle, mighty though they were, were so far below me on the tower I had stacked on them that they could no longer be seen.

I was struck by the weight of my own theodicy. Somehow I had to find a way to abdicate my throne, which was all the more impossible because I had none, nor any crown to cede nor successor to whom to yield it. Just as Alexandria had been reborn, so had Alexander. And like the eponymous ruler of all that was, I wept.

* * *

The undiscovered principles of psychology and metaphysics I had at my command were awesome, yet untried. Fire-drunk with omniscience, I had never once attempted omnipotence, though with the secrets of being at my fingertips it, too, may well have been at my disposal. This changed.

The science of the soul had been conquered trivially long since, and I called to mind its foundational texts, which I had written. I knew every fold of the cortex, every synaptic juncture. I could perfectly visualise and even predict the shape of every new thought, as well as those that had yet to be imagined, and also their places in the vast interfunctional net of logic that was my own consciousness.

There exist thoughts that are anti-thoughts, that do not merely write over other memories and beliefs as new information or the tide of passions but actually nullify them and erase their presence from having existed, as a wave of destructive interference in audiology or as a short string of words can recontextualize all that came before: “It was all a dream.”

Accordingly, there exists a single great Anti-Thought which, when perfectly formulated and entered into the sense of the mind, to be sure no easy task, makes the whole new again and unwritten. A single thought, infinitely byzantine, a cathedral of innumerable individual psychic bricks, which when entered into the mind wipes it as a slate with a single swift swipe of a sponge. That thought I thought.

* * *

And so, yet with no knowledge of what precisely I had done to the world or to myself (memories later returning as the forbidden factual knowledge faded), I discovered myself back where I had begun, naked and alone in an empty building. I collected the ragged shards of myself and retired to my singular lonely aisle for the coming day. I silently resumed my life of solitude and observation with no empirical aspirations, and never breathed a word about my infinite sacrifice, nor the infinite conquest that preceded it.

I had frittered for who knew how many months — God! years! — in the Library and seemed to have exhausted all available forking paths. There were times, dark hours when even the unbound surface area of the Library seemed claustrophobic, when I came close to giving up the whole thing, revealing myself as a lifelong perfidy and allowing myself to be smartly collared by a pair of moustachioed constables and dragged out the distant, mysterious Main Entrance.

The hollow moon was perched atop one of the outcropping towers of the building, fat with silver and romance, and I decided at least to give myself until it waned and died to draw my residency to a doubtlessly calamitous close.

In the sickly silver owllight I plotted an ending to a book I’d never dared open.

* * *

I retained my skills at deception that I had developed in my first tender twelvemonth. By day, my disguise and my demeanor were near-perfect. I was once brutally perused by an emeritus classicist for ten minutes before he realized I wasn’t a first edition of The Complete Translated Catalogue of Sheeps, with twelve color plates. From then on, I took up only ever the guise of cheap romance novels, and never anything of value. At the very least, it attracted a different class of reader.

But such fare necessarily narrows the imagination, and so it was with all the more amazement that I beheld the blowing into the cold catacomb corridors a balmy breeze that carried on it all the colors and perfumes of spring. It wore a blue cloche hat. Before I knew it, he had picked me up.

At such times of epiphany the mind loses hold of the body. As when the phiz is taken over by a flush of the cheeks at the mention of past shames or a sudden, wanton guffaw at the telling of an unfamiliar joke, I had no conscious control over my visage.

I confess I do not know exactly what he read.

It may have been the Rubaiyat. It may have been worse than the Rubaiyat.

With a gasp, he dropped me. An unbookish cry escaped my lips.

The vision regarded me in a new light. “You are not a book!” he cried. “You are a man!”

It is difficult not to bristle at such an insult. “I am both,” I replied. “When it was my charge to produce a book, I could not get so far as the title page. I determined instead to be one.”

“You were a writer?”

“Close. A printer’s apprentice.”

As it happened, he, too, was seeking surcease and absolution in the library, and had until that moment been as unlucky as I. He suffered, he related over a cozy repast of sonnet soufflé, from moral relativism, which apparently was the condition of having moral relatives. These relatives had cast him out from his ancestral manor on the unhappy intersection of Grub Street and Skid Row upon the occasion of some meaningless misunderstanding, and he had come to the library in search of a certain slim volume containing instructions on the preparation of a sort of glove cleaner.

I did not pretend to understand his plight. I had once understood the completeness of everything, and had since come to understand that understanding is overrated. But I offered my sympathies, as well as my avail. The title of Lord of the Library was not perhaps so unappealing a position, and nor, perhaps, was Consort of That Ilk. The glove cleaner was forgotten.

* * *

I endeavored, by example, to instruct him on the art of literary camouflage. He proved an extremely astute learner and an adept mimic in several respects. In our haste to try out our new life, we became quite unaware of our surroundings and were mis-shelved, although a passing pair of uniformed novice subbookkeepers righted us without our even taking note.

“What a handsome matched set of Milton!”

“And double-bound as the Italians call dos-à-dos, I believe.”

“That’s Spanish, you unlettered buffoon! It means ‘two-by-two.’”

“I have always been partial to the Celestial Epic, although the less said about Regained, the better.”

“Shall we escort them to their rightful little grotto across the rotunda?”

One pink dawn as the advancing sun crept down a shelf of early modern epic verse toward our prone forms, I turned a cream-colored leaf to discover that what I had assumed a magnum opus was in fact merely a prodromus.

Six months later, we were auctioned off and subsumed into the vast private collection of an illiterate billionaire oilman, on whose estate the climate was agreeable, disturbances by human beings all but totally absent, and the company exquisite.

Copyright © 2020 by Daniel W. Galef

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