by Daniel Finkel
A little bell rang, and he stepped into the pantheon of letters, the labyrinthine carnival of books. Here, editions dangled from the ceiling like cuts of meat, pages were pickled in dust, different silks and spices of paper cluttered the walls, and tiny white dictionaries clustered on the shelves like sweetmeats, coated in grit, not sugar. Classics were laid out like catches of fish, revised, edited, abridged and de-boned. Lint, mold and powder perfumed the air.
He advanced down an aisle, his hand brushing the covers as he passed. Hemingway was a tickle. Fitzgerald was a twinge. Swift, Pope, and Fielding slipped by under his fingers. He moved deeper into the shop, to the dark corners and spider-spun crannies. Here, corked bottles of Bulgakov and Tolstoy foamed on the shelf. Proust was trimmed and loaded like a cannon, prepared to fire. A fresh slab of Shakespeare roasted in the corner, raw and bloody. He passed on.
He was getting anxious now, eager to find the correct book. His eyes lighted on a far corner. Of course! The Bible. He rushed over, and then hesitated again. Which one? New Testament or Old Testament, Vedas or Masoretic Text, Koran or Epistle to the Romans, the Book of Lamentations or the Song of Songs? It was impossible to choose. Disappointed, he went on.
He was in the very back of the shop now, and all around him he could hear squeaking, as if the walls were packed with mice. The books on the shelves were big and fat, like turkeys, stuffed with pages, and suddenly he despaired of ever finding the right edition. Then he turned a corner, and, just like that, his search was over.
In a far corner, the farthest corner, pressed up against a back wall, was a little hardbound book, the collected works of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Carefully, he plucked it like a white feather, and caressed its uncut pages. Here was something that thousands had read before him, pondered, gone over with a flashlight, picked apart, and studied under a microscope. Here was a collection of human knowledge. If only he had learned how to read.
A crunch. A swallow. A smile. The words were sweet.