City of Readers

A story (slightly edited for this blog) from my collection The Logogryph, about a utopian city of readers. I’m not sure, but it might be Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

  The city is surrounded by a wall two thousand paces in circumference, and by an encircling moat as well. The houses of the citizens are roomy and comfortably adorned, solid and strong in construction. Everywhere there are wide doorways and broad courts, with benches and shade trees. The houses all have tall windows of fine glass let in the light from all sides.
The streets themselves are made of the hardest flagstones, which are frequently replaced, as the nightly pacing of the city’s numberless insomniacs and sleepwalkers swiftly wears them out.
            The grand temple, dedicated to those few citizens who have attained transfiguration, is both imposing and splendid, built of ornately carved stone, full of lit candles, and admirable for its polished and immaculate shelving. The numerous relics of the Transfigured are laid out with simple dignity in alcoves: most moving are the pairs of bent and tarnished wire spectacles, which give silent testimony to many diligent hours.
Adjacent to this temple is an enclosed hermitage, in which literary agents, publishers and other sinners are received as penitents. If any of them, however, is found to have relapsed into their former vices they are weighted with broken inkstones and thrown into the moat. Thus these functionaries learn to adopt a modest and a holy life; evil rumour is rarely heard of them.
There is also a university in this city, but scarcely a book is to be seen in its halls and residences, and indeed the students make a great show of their own ignorance and laziness, so much so that young people have flocked from far and wide, upon report of the great orgies of time-wasting to be enjoyed here. And it would seem that the parents and older citizens not only tolerate but encourage such behavior, for, as was explained to me, how else will the young acquire the discipline needed to idle away the rest of their lives with books?
It is believed that within the city there are at present over five hundred optometrists and sixty thousand librarians. Eighteen of these latter, usually the most capricious and heterodox, are chosen yearly as anti-censors, whose duty it is to ensure that no book is ever banned or prevented from reaching any reader. There is also a body of officials whose function is to ensure that any disturbing or scandalous volumes are distributed at random through the city, in order that the wrong reader may come upon them by accident, and so complicate and deepen her reading life with matter that she may otherwise never have encountered.
You may well ask how such imposing walls and grand houses are constructed in such a city.  Whence comes their obvious wealth? The answer is that the people do as much work as is required to maintain life and enjoyment, and as the rest of their time is given over to reading, they squander neither a moment nor a penny on dubious pursuits like gaming, whoring or investing. Surplus funds go into a public trust which is meant to be shared out equally amongst all, although it is true that this ideal is seldom realized: not because those in charge of the funds are avaricious or deceitful, but simply because they are too wrapped up in the latest novel to be diligent with tallies and figures.
Even though many people here print and publish their own books, carts of volumes arrive daily from many lands. From China arrive slim chapbooks of poems and philosophical fragments, the pages woven of fine embroidered silk, or painted in tiny hand on plaques of delicate porcelain. From Italy are brought collections of tales both fabulous and bawdy, the pages of which smell strongly of pepper and cheese. From the northern lands come a great many heroic epics wrapped warmly in the skins of fox, ermine, sable and lynx, or stowed among salted herring. The English ship their famed tragedies and comedies in amongst casks of ale and boxes of silverware. From the new world, by way of Spain, come books of magic spells and fat novels, inked with leopard’s blood and bound in precious stones from the beds of poisonous rivers.
            It is also wondrous how much produce is brought into the city day after day. Trains of wagons come in through the gates loaded with eggs, meat and fish. Flour, bread and pastries arrive in tremendous masses; nonetheless, by evening nothing is left in the marketplace to be bought.      
            It is not the citizens themselves who devour all of this bounty of the earth, however. Instead, they purchase it for the numerous household guests who visit at all times of the year, in order to escape their own clamorous, hectic lives. As anyone who devotes a life to books well knows, tranquil solitude is a kind of vacuum that attracts the noisy and the inquisitive. Rather than struggle against this law of nature, almost every citizen operates, from out of his own house, a tavern for feasting and wine-bibbing. When friends and relations arrive on the doorstep with their luggage, their sunburns, and their sticky children, the inhabitants heat up the stoves, prepare succulent dishes, fetch in musicians and harlots, and let all proceed as it will, while they themselves retire to some sheltered spot, where the enjoyment of a book is perhaps given even greater relish by the adjacent din.
            Of course, for such a large and noble city, this means that there is much licentiousness and vandalry. Brawls erupt often between rival mobs of visitors vying for the spoils. Hardly an evening goes by without a skirmish or an ambuscade, and when such clashes occur, there is no one to separate the contending parties. There are no magistrates such as we know them, no officers of the law, no collectors of revenues other than those who collect the tax on wine, which everyone must pay. If outright robbery is committed, or murder, or any other disruption of the civil peace, the ire of the citizenry at having their reading interrupted by the necessities of law and order leads to swift vigilante trial and justice, though most often even the rumour of one of these avenging mobs of disturbed readers is enough to drive an offender from the city in terror.
            Truly any city would be better off without such evils, but you will find few here beset with worry about the matter. Books are made of paper and ink, they will remind you, but also of foolishness and immoderation. And so those whose lives are the most plagued by tumult and trouble are those in whom most often you will see the signs of approaching transfiguration: the pallid, almost translucent skin, the soundless step, the fading shadow. On faces lined with long forbearance and great suffering you will find the light in the eyes that comes from another place, from the knowledge that one day soon, their loved ones will awaken to find them gone from their beds, from their sofas and benches and hammocks, and will then, with mingled contentment and eagerness, begin the search for them in the pages of books that they have not yet opened.

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