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A short story by Tibor Fischer

Don’t Read This Book if You’re Stupid
Tibor Fischer
Secker & Warburg
London 2000

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He pushed open the door marked STAFF ONLY. He took a look at the noticeboard to see if there was anything new. There wasn’t.

A number of shoplifter alerts was posted with crude characteristics: smelly, Irish, steals Atlases. Or: horn-rim glasses, long overcoat, sandwiches, fond of gardening. Some sales and turnover stats. Vacancies at other branches. He opened the cupboard where he knew the coffee would be and got the kettle to boil. Into the jar that served as receptacle for coffee money, he counted out the change, two dimes and a nickel.

Not caring about coffee was a feat he congratulated himself on. What the reputable brands were, he had no idea. He didn’t waste a second fussing over coffee, how many spoonfuls, how much water, how much milk, how much sugar. Coffee was something many people could get worked up about. He had one over them.

He shot through some new books, and then tried a few phone calls. But no one was there.

So he sipped his coffee and enjoyed the comfy chair.

He felt OK, he told himself. Truthfully, no, not okay . . . more than OK . . . he felt good. At ease. He spent fifteen minutes thinking how unimportant birthdays were. Then several minutes considering whether he might be wrong. Followed by half an hour pondering that sitting on your own in a bookshop office on your birthday with a couple of bananas and half a loaf of half dry bread for supper, although he felt fine about it, might seem wretched to others, and was he worried about looking miserable? Did what other people think matter? Eventually he got tired of thinking about it.

There was a pleasant atmosphere to the room. Snug. It was a pity he didn’t work here, but anyway, he had to get to work.

The next morning he emerged unobserved from Natural History and walked out and made his way towards Port Authority.

As he was crossing a quiet street, a skinny black man approached him.

‘I’ve got something for you.’ He made no response and strode on in that unlistening way that forms big cities, sensing his failure to look poor, crazy and dangerous enough to repel contact. The poor and crazy he was pretty good at but he was not getting anywhere near dangerous. But he stopped when the black man offered him an elephant.

He looked into the trailer, and irrefutably it was an Indian elephant. A young elephant, young enough to fit into the horse-trailer, old enough to look disgruntled and tired of the elephant game. Shaking his head he carried on.

‘You need this elephant,’ exhorted the salesman, transmitting such urgency that for a moment, he experienced the conviction that what he did indeed need was an elephant, this elephant. This emotion vanished as quickly as it had come. That was what it was all about essentially: people telling you you needed things, or that you enjoyed things, and then discovering that you didn’t.

‘A hundred dollars. A hundred dollars is all I’m asking.’ A bargain. Too good to pass up. But he didn’t need an elephant, a dodgy one to boot, that much he had learned in his thirty-three years. He tended to be defined in the negative; he was someone who didn’t need an elephant. The salesman was almost by definition a more interesting person since he needed to sell an elephant, although more desperate. Above all, he didn’t have a place to put the elephant, since he didn’t have a place to put himself. But perhaps that was the greatest gift, the knack of allowing yourself to be convinced and staying that way.

He went to his locker, and rummaged round. He liberated the Bookcruncher T-shirt from the grip of other apparel and changed.

He didn’t like the T-shirt anymore, he found it embarrassing. Bookcruncher in a bold arc at the top, the first two lines of the Iliad in the middle and underneath in lower case, Fear Me. It was the kind of item you had made when you were young and belligerent. A woman who had started lecturing him on dress sense in a diner despite his flagrantly reading two books to deflect her had been horrified to discover, when, under interrogation, he had calculated that the T-shirt was twelve years old. Genuinely horrified. But he didn’t throw it away, since he never threw anything away, and like most unwanted items of clothing it was indestructible.

Now he had the option of going round the corner to the Paramount Hotel for a quick wash, or going to Sylvana’s for a more comprehensive job; he was on for a shower, but the deal with Sylvana was doing the washing-up and dusting in exchange for towellage. Sylvana had a lot of books which were phenomenally difficult to dust and since he had now read all of them he found it hard to get involved.

He strolled over to the Paramount and entered the Gents where he stripped to the waist, freshened up, flossed lengthily and realised he didn’t feel very industrious. He went there regularly and had never been bothered. Unintentionally, he supposed, he managed poor and crazy as done by the rich and foreign.

Afterwards it was the Cuban restaurant and the special. He always ordered the special; this relieved him of the duty of studying the menu, and the staff of trying to unload the special. He was up to 1884, and he reached for his copy of The Remarkable History of Sir Thomas Bart which was remarkable only in being boring, and The Story of Charles Strange, which wasn’t strange but boring.

The garlic chicken and rice with black beans came after only three pages. As he made the first incision he wondered whether his father was dead.

They said you only became a full man once your father died. One afternoon would he suddenly feel a surge of power out of the blue and know? That would be the only way he’d get any news about his father.

He wondered how often he had that thought? Once every day for ten years? Twice every day? Three times every two days? How much time was that he had wasted? For five minutes a go? Ten minutes? You wasted so much time with the same thoughts. People complained about having to do the same things, about having to wear the same clothes, but they never had any problem thinking the same thoughts. He realised this was another thought almost as frequent as the preceding.

In the booth opposite him, a man in a porkpie hat reading a newspaper complained about the special.

That was the one thing he could thank his father for: he could and would eat anything without a murmur. It was not so much that his father had been a bad cook, but when his mother had left, the food had always been tasteless and stunningly unvarying: sausages, black pudding, and pork chops. Other carnal effects in danger of going off in his father’s shop had been thrown in very occasionally. He wondered how often he thought that? Every time he saw someone fussing in a restaurant or leaving their food. Mealtimes, he had learned a long time ago, were something to be crossed.

You were granted immunity to your own thoughts, he decided, it was close to impossible to bore yourself. If you had to sit next to someone who would regularly say that’s one thing I can thank my father for and mealtimes are something to be crossed you would be gibbering within two days. So maturity is: when you stop having new sermonlets and you just drive ceaselessly round the roundabouts you’ve already built.

Nevertheless he relished the rice pudding, bruised with a little cinnamon, and the coffee: it was good to go wild periodically. He mostly avoided the final thought of the paternal package – what was sad was not that they hated each other, but simply that there was nothing there. He had sonned adequately and he wished his father could have pretended a little. After some years he had been granted a partial understanding of his father, when, on a train, he had seen one of his friends from school. He had not talked to him for five years, but he had not gone over to talk to him: he had nothing to say. It was funny, was it not, in a world where a satellite could tell your brand of toothpaste, where you could blast a million words ten thousand miles away in the lowering of a finger, where you could wallow in sitcom from any continent, where there was no hiding and no silence, he didn’t know where his father was and he had nothing to say to him?

‘You read a lot,’ said the behatted kvetch indicating the two novels he had open. He nodded, because there was no denying it and because he didn’t want to put up the ante for a conversation

‘Books aren’t life.’

‘No, they’re better,’ he replied and flipped through the thirty-two library cards in his wallet to remove his one credit card to pay.

This was twenty-first century vagrancy. An ocean away, in the rain small sums of money carrying his name made the pilgrimage to a bank in Cambridge; meanwhile in London, small American debts trudged to an address where a cheque would be signed in an acceptable approximation of his signature by Elsa, giving him the right to plastic.

He felt good. Rice pudding and coffee goodness. No one else in New York. Probably no one else in the world.

On his way to the Public Library, he stopped off at the Post Office to see what had appeared. One cheque, three months late. A book to review; that would be three hundred words saying what it was like, and three hundred words saying what it wasn’t like: fine. An invitation to a conference.

Several letters from Elsa – a birthday batch of correspondence. These days he always suffered from a temptation to put her letters straight into the bin, because over the last few years there had been nothing new. She had the same job, the same flat, and she employed the same expressions of concern and coaxing. He would have thought she would have got as tired of writing these sugardrops as he was of reading them but no; they were her roundabouts.

But then Elsa was tenacious and that was only one of her virtues. Crunchy, you can’t expect me to make the first move, was a phrase that turned up every fifth letter and was, he surmised, totally unironic despite Elsa having made every move from one to a thousand, and having used every weapon in the feminine arsenal from the smooth pebble to the shoulder-launched missile.

A wake of pink envelopes, cabinetloads of cards and other affection-heavy baubles had trailed him around the world: marzipan hippos, beanbag lions, furry diaries, a Bible keyring (surely the peak of incongruity since he had nowhere to live), chocolate breasts, tins of baked beans, inflatable lips, wind-up miniature Christmas trees, all bearing the message of softness. During periods of intense activity, she wrote almost every day; the bestial incarnations of the heart hunted him down: smiling bears, cheery dolphins came with the messages for someone special, thinking of you makes me happy. Along came the dejected rabbits, lugubrious moles and forlorn kittens with the tag, missing you. Elsa’s supply of any object or animal capable of an alliance with endearment was apparently endless despite her being a university graduate, thirty-two, a woman of good taste and half of her communications failing to reach him.

No real reason why she had chosen him. He knew his chief merit was that he had no demerits. He wouldn’t beat her, he wouldn’t go chasing after other women, he wouldn’t drink or blow their money at the bookie’s, he wouldn’t make her watch football on the television, or defecate on the floor. Like the legless tortoise in the joke, you would find him where you left him. He had been tempted by Elsa’s repeated insistence that there was room aplenty in her flat, that he could do his work there. He wouldn’t take up much space, and his upkeep was minimal. It wouldn’t be a bad arrangement.

The only reason he didn’t take it up was that he didn’t want it; and he knew if he yielded it would remove the possibility of her finding a proper happiness. Was it nobility or just recognition that he would be nulling her life?

Every now and then silences of a few months’ duration opened up, while Elsa’s unsuccessful romances would be digested. A male silhouette would be spotted peripherally after Elsa went off on a holiday. A one-off reference to a forester met on a beach, a promoter met on a cruise. Her liaisons seemed to be only as long as hotel beds.

It was good to see that Upstairs didn’t just punish the freaks. While Elsa’s looks would never stop traffic, she was intelligent, employed, considerate, a good cook, had a job in which she met people all the time, but she still spent nights prowling a double bed, although all she wanted to do was to hose a man down with tenderness.

He never understood those who thought being different was stimulating or valuable. Anyone who had been on the outside knows how cold it is.

He went over to the Public Library, found a quiet corner and loaded up. In the right Three Weeks in Mopetown, in the left If I Were God. People often looked at him, but no one said anything.

The academic roundabout came, as it did nearly every day.

Why hadn’t he got an academic job? Probably because he didn’t want one. But he loved stepping out of the dark and shooting them in the back. Repeatedly. He loved the unfairness of it.

He would start off by mentioning something obvious, so they hoped they had an audience worth showing off to. Then he would usher in something rare, to show he was heavy, to get an eyebrow raised. Finally something truly obscure, only one or two copies in existence. To really scare them. it was easy. He did the nineteenth century people by going back to the eighteenth; he did the eighteenth by using the seventeenth, the seventeenth clobbered by the sixteenth. It was easy, you only had to move a mere ten or fifteen years out of their fief to unsettle them. Then some would smile with relief, and say it was not their beat. How could you understand writers if you didn’t know what came before, what they read? What the people they read had read? Those who took refuge in their era, he would go back and strafe again to show them that was no protection. That’s why he did the reviews.

He put down If I were God. 1884 and counting. Getting the books in the right order was impossible, and he couldn’t be as neat as he’d like to be. He had to zig-zag.

The Idea had come to him thirteen years ago on the third floor of the University Library, reading a letter by the extremely dead Pope Pius II : ‘Without letters, every age is blind.’ And he wondered what you would see if you had all the letters, if you had read everything ever written? He was already living in the library by that point, which was perhaps the start.

Or had Paris been the start? He had backpacked there with Tom. Short of money, deeply uncool, they wandered around hoping to accrue chic and excitement. They had been amazed at the number of hotels in the Quartier Latin and how full they all were. After two hours of walking around, they found one that had a free room, but they didn’t have the money. They were offered a lesson in why people booked rooms at the height of the tourist season.

Three times they had walked past the bookshop; he had astonished himself with his self-control. The fourth time, he suggested to Tom they go in.

He had known about Shakespeare & Co and what it was. He had been young then, fairly ignorant, but alert enough to know about Joyce and Eliot being bandits. Once inside he was disabled by the choice, but Tom who had no time for books, went up to the counter to ask the crumpled man for hotel ideas. They had never been in Paris before let alone the bookshop, but the man had clearly seen them a thousand times.

He sighed: ‘If you’re really stuck, you can stay here for one night. That’s one night.’

So he spent his first night in Paris in a bookshop, or more significantly he spent his first night in a bookshop in Paris. Tom went out to have a kebab, and then returned to talk to two American girls who were also in for the night and eating yoghurt, while Shakespeare & Co became his favourite bookshop. He didn’t eat and he didn’t sleep all night because he was so fascinated by the American editions he had never seen before.

He had watched the sun come up over Notre Dame and remembered how supposedly Faust had arrived in Paris, his baggage bulging with newly printed Gutenberg Bible to sell, and how he had been encouraged to get lost by the Parisian manuscript guilds who didn’t want their action cut into.

It had unstoppered him. You didn’t have to leave when the bookshop closed. You stayed and carried on reading. He was already spending so much time in local bookshops that he was pegged as a shoplifter, but now he realised he could spend many more hours in bookshops. But he hadn’t sensed it was the start. Just holiday fun.

The start had been in attendance that evening in the University Library, when he had been accidentally locked in. Then he had started staying in occasionally throughout the night because he didn’t want to leave. He was never discovered; the staff came around at closing time, but it was easy to hide in the nocturnal stacks of a quiet top floor and then emerge unremarked in the morning.

True the phone call from his father had been part of the start. After his first term, he found himself cut off. His father had missed out on university; had at sixteen, as he often publicized, gone straight into butchering. The encouragement he had received to go to university, he discovered, had merely been encouragement to go. He found himself adrift with just enough change to fill a trouser pocket

Hardly the greatest cruelty the world had seen. He could have found a job, but he decided to cut his expenses by giving up his room, putting most of his stuff into storage, staying in the library at night, reading most of the time, then walking over to the college in the morning where he would use one of the communal bathrooms; followed by some shopping, then a saunter back to the library.

He had none of the standard student expenses: he didn’t go anywhere. From arriving at Cambridge till he left, he didn’t leave, apart from once accompanying Elsa and some others in a countryside foray for pubs. He didn’t go to the cinema or clubbing. Buying clothes was out. Eating properly was out. Buying books was out. Boozing was out. There was the grant, the scholarship and the hardship fund. He did some work in the University Library during the holidays, so everyone was used to seeing him around. And his life wasn’t just the UL; he’d pop into the other libraries for some variety and a change of pace.

An uncomfortable awareness touched him that there was no one else who had his tastes: that he was a part of the apart. Elsa was constantly friendly to him, but they had little overlap. Nevertheless he had some fun. One afternoon he was picked up in Silver Street and conducted back to a bedsit by a woman who worked as a cleaner at the hospital. ‘Uncle Phil,’ she said addressing him as he struggled to loosen her grip on his arm and to remember whether he had ever seen her before. ‘Fancy seeing you here, why not come back to my place?’

Some great passion, he had imagined, was engulfing him; for a week he tended only amorous poetry, but of course Uncle Phil could be found on any street at any time. He learned a number of things: he cottoned on to why most people would do almost anything for sex, that her interest in him had nothing to do with him, and that everyone gets one free fuck.

When she had seized him he had almost shaken her off because he had books to read, but he was glad he had got that out of the way.

Then there was the party when just as he was regretting not staying in the library, he was so bored, two young women stripped off. He felt like applauding, but hadn’t. The bafflement of the males was interesting and it took him a few years to diagnose what was going on; the free parties were either intimidated by the audacity of undressing, or were unconcerned by women whose genitalia were common knowledge; but inevitably, there was Kev from Belfast who did both of them over the rickety ironing-board in the laundry-room. Kev was the only one apart from him who didn’t complain about the college food. It was plain even then who was going to get on.

He picked at a bit of bean on his Bookcruncher T-shirt, which had fallen in and coalesced with the gable of Achilles’s A.

But he had dedicated himself to reading everything.

Then, on reflection, he realised he couldn’t do that. But everything in English. Everything in book form. He had read a good amount, he had been averaging three or four average books a day since eleven. Although he had wasted some time in irrelevant topics. He knew more about Chinese history than was healthy for anyone but a Chinese historian, for instance.

He had never explained his mission to anyone, because he didn’t want anyone to know if he failed, and because he wasn’t sure what the point was. He sensed there was an answer at the end, but he had no idea what it would be or what he would do with it. Perhaps he would write something original. After all how can you write something original if you haven’t read everything before?

The numbers are daunting. A few hundred books to 1500. Some ten thousand to 1600. Eighty thousand to 1700. Three hundred thousand to 1800. Then things go crazy. Much of it was recloaking. Much of it was dross. Much of it was brief. But if he hadn’t come up with the two book technique, simultaneously reading one book in his right hand and one book in his left, he wouldn’t have got anywhere.

It occurred to him that he might appear pitiful. After he had been living in North London bookshops for four years, subsisting on reviews and marrying Japanese women who wanted nationality lifts, although he felt fine, he could see that people might think spending your whole life in either bookshops or libraries was wretched. He decided he couldn’t spend all his time in bookshops in North London since he didn’t want his horizons stunted. So he started touring: France, Germany and finally America.

What had he learned so far? Motion looks like progress. German bookshops had champagne, but only in American bookshops could you get frappuchino. And hope. Hope. Books were made of hope, not paper. Hope that someone would read your book; hope that it would change the world or improve it; hope that people would agree with you, hope that people might believe you; hope that you’ll be remembered, celebrated, hope that people would feel something. Hope that you would learn something; hope that you’ll entertain or impress; hope you’ll catch some cash; hope that you’ll be proved right and hope that you’ll be proved wrong.

Unfortunately there was the problem that even if you read everything, you don’t read it as the same person. When he first read the Iliad, the opening was just the opening: an explanation. The anger of Achilles: people always thought it referred to Achilles’ rage at losing his favourite slave-girl, or losing his sidekick Patrocolus.

When he had read it first at eleven, he hadn’t read it. At seventeen when he reapplied it was beginning to come into focus.

Yet only when he was thirty and he had been stuck in a lift, and he had gone in for the third time had the meaning dripped through like portly raindrops infiltrating a roof.

It was no accident that the first word in Western literature was anger. Achilles anger. He now saw it was anger at being alive, anger at having no choice. The Iliad was the truth, the Odyssey the sale brochure, where you dally with tricky women, get home and slaughter all the people who have been giving you grief. The Iliad was the scoop: stuck in a way you didn’t ask for, working with chumps who couldn’t even find Troy in the first place, unable to forget that your mother left you and that a centaur made you eat entrails, no choice, no challenge and the knowledge that you’re not going home and that nothing is going to make you feel better.

When he read reports of spree-killers topping themselves he saw it wasn’t because of remorse or desire to dodge the penal system, but despair because their actions hadn’t made them feel any better, that they had leapt over the edge and the anger was still there. And it ran all the way through. Gilgamesh was angry. Jahweh was angry. Moses was angry. Pharaoh was beside himself. Electra was incandescent. Oedipus frothing. The Ronin were hopping mad. Hamlet was miffed. Orlando was furioso.

The problem was Upstairs . . . Karma. Kismet. Destiny. Fate. The Fates. Parcae. Namtar. The Norns. Doom. Fortune. Providence. Luck. Cosmo. Allah. Book of Fate. Threads. The words turned up again and again; they were the clichés he read over and over, not because the writers were unimaginative but because there was no other way of putting it.

Fulhams were what you got. The dice were loaded but you had to throw them to see how the numbers fell.

He strolled to the Barnes & Noble on Union Square.

Generally the bigger they were, the easier it was. You found a quiet stretch of shelving just before closing time and made yourself scarce until everyone had gone and you could get bookcrunching. He hadn’t been caught very often. Over the years he had only been apprehended four times and had been let off.

They had looked at him in a way he didn’t like to think about, which suggested that either he was a failed burglar who couldn’t get it right, or too failed an individual to want to be close to. Only the woman in Nuneaton had called the police. ‘I’m calling the police,’ she had hissed. He could easily have run off but he waited, not understanding why the woman had said that if he had been possessed of criminal intent or a guilty conscience it would have primed him to get going or to get heavy. He hadn’t run off, chiefly, because he had nowhere to run to. He had read twenty pages of North and South before the constabulary showed up. They weren’t able to get very excited with no sign of damage, forced entry or theft. ‘We’ll say no more about it this time,’ one said, since there really was nothing more to say.

It was not being prepared. You would fumble for a sentence in your pocket and come out with what was there or carry on fumbling. Walking home from school when he was eleven, two girls his age whom he had noticed regularly walking home the other way on the other side of the street, crossed over. ‘Is it okay if I hit you?’ the blonde had asked. He had been thinking about the question and an answer, when the blonde’s fist impacted unpleasantly on his jaw. He then thought what he should do. He smiled and walked away.

Without preparation it was sticky. In Portland once, he had been deep into Phlegon of Tralles’ Book Of Marvels and the Emperor Hadrian’s centaur, so engrossed and not expecting anything since it was a humid summer two o’clock in the morning, sleepy in a sleepy town, that he hadn’t registered another presence in the bookshop.

His attention was disturbed by the owner, a large man clutching a camp bed, pleading not to be killed. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ the owner repeated, sinking to his knees; puzzling since he was only armed with a 215-page paperback and the incident with the girl had taught him he didn’t have a fearsome aspect.

‘The air conditioning packed up at home. It’s just too hot. I have money here, I’ll show you. I won’t tell the police anything. Just let me live.’ He had wanted to roll out his standard story of having been accidentally locked in, but he never had been any better at lying than he had been at telling the truth, and the owner was having none of it. Taking the money was the easiest option, so he did and went to a hotel with enough books to get himself through the next day. He could see how he might be perceived as criminal, but he couldn’t fathom how he had made it to dangerous, but the incident left him splattered with interestingness and power.

As Barnes & Noble closed, he hunkered down in Politics and waited an hour for the building to clear of sounds. There had never been a book that hadn’t contained fibres of other books; to write you have to read first. Could he be a person who had nothing of others in him? Was there anyone else who worried about no one eating fish in the Iliad? And who remembered the thirty-three terms of abuse for tax collectors gathered by Pollux of Naucrates? At the same time wondering if Apuleius’s lost novel Hermagoras would ever turn up? While not forgetting to ponder if the De Tribus Impostoribus Mundi had ever existed?

He then made for the luxurious armchair that had endeared Barnes & Noble to him so much and plunged into (on the right) Singularly Deluded and (on the left) The World’s Desire.

He got tired of it sometimes, but he kept going because he had gone too far to go back. A bout of weakness had made him take a job for two months, but it hadn’t made things better.

His concentration couldn’t have been that good because he heard coughing. For a few moments he sat motionless as if that might change something. Faintly, he detected it again. He thought about letting coughing be coughing, but couldn’t get back into left or right.

Reluctantly investigating, on the first floor, he could see a thin woman dressed in mixed black. Attractive. He knew she wasn’t staff, he was familiar with the assistants and also she had an . . . unstaffy manner. She was reading.

Not only was she reading intently, but she held a book in her left hand, and another in her right.

His steps startled her. Promptly, she closed the books, and slotted them back into the shelves. ‘You must be closing,’ she said in an appealing way. Her skin was pale, her lips gotcha red.

He wanted to say that he didn’t work here.

‘Don’t look at me that way,’ she snapped.

She set the alarms off as she left.

He concluded that he felt OK but he feared he would feel bad, and that the badness was on its way.

Copyright © Tibor Fischer 1999

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Bookcruncher is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, please contact The Richmond Review in the first instance. Bookcruncher appears in Tibor Fischer’s collection of short stories Don’t Read This Book if You’re Stupid

About Tibor Fischer

Tibor Fischer was born in Stockport in 1959. Brought up in London, where he now lives, he was educated at Cambridge and worked as a journalist. He is the author of Under the Frog (which won the Betty Trask Award, earned him a place on Granta‘s 1993 Best of Young British Novelists and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Thought Gang and The Collector Collector. Tibor Fischer’s most recent book is Don’t Read This Book if You’re Stupid, a collection of short stories.


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