by Cloud Spurlock
After the initial shock and a universal feeling of inexplicable loss, the academic world met Hamlet’s disappearance with an awkward confusion. When shelvers in the libraries across the globe brushed their hands over the faded spines, they might have felt a faint, tangible importance at their fingertips, but unable to place the origin of that sensation, they would have moved on. It was as if every literate person in the world had wandered upstairs and forgotten what it was she was looking for. That is what it is like to forget something that no longer exists to be forgotten.
The pattern was the same: a university student finalizing a thesis would emerge from study scratching his head and declare, “I lost my train of thought.” Professors cried out in alarm during class while clutching honey-colored volumes to their breasts, but their words slipped through like sand and fell into oblivion. Scholars began to repeat the important titles to one another in a futile attempt to hold on to all they had left. A tweed-bearing lecturer crossed a campus with furious steps and muttered, “Iliad, Iliad, Iliad,” over and over until the title lost meaning long before the epic disappeared. One student, upon flipping past the newly blanked pages in her English anthology, turned to her classmate one afternoon and asked, “What is a Waste Land?” Their eyes scanned the tissue slate wiped clean and wondered at the symbolism of a poem without words. “Terribly depressing,” one said to the other. “True,” said her friend, “it’s a bleak outlook. Besides, ‘wasteland’ is one word.”
Several theories arose, not a few of which placed blame at the failing youth who were too entrenched in passive forms of entertainment to be bothered to read. Books have no value without readers, they decided, and that is why they disappear. But increasingly there were more blank books on the shelvers’ carts than there were on the shelves. The books being read were the ones dying. Was it possible, they wondered, to read a book to death?
A more popular theory emerged among a band of baffled scholars, all of whom had lost work in Hamlet’s wake when the texts they studied disappeared and rendered their research ridiculous. They concluded that it was not the loose and convoluted interpretations from half-witted analyses that were at fault; rather, it was their own finessed and nuanced genius that welled up from centuries of criticism of the most examined works. If there is no mystery left for us to solve, then there is no value in the literature, and the stories disappear. Criticism takes on more importance than the text, the critic usurps the power of the author, imposes that power on the reader, and fully-interpreted books, poems, dreams, and histories fall away in defeat. And they fell. This was The Great Loss.
It was not just the universities and libraries that it touched. My great-grandfather, it is said, was a great actor, an epic pretender. He was in the middle of a successful run of shows with his company when The Great Loss began. One evening during the second half of his drama, in the middle of a speech, in what he remembered as a climactic moment, he simply forgot his lines. He stood alone on stage with a human skull in his hand and no idea what to do. With his mental catalogue blanked, he glanced at the prompter, protected by a shell just above the orchestra pit, and he saw that even this subtle hero sat flipping madly through marked-up pages of a blanked-out script.
My great-grandfather considered walking off the stage to end the production there, but instead he continued by inventing mere banter and jokes with his co-stars, whom he called back onstage. It was an eerie ending, he once told a friend, because he was sure that he was supposed to die but could not for the life of him figure out how. The crowd still loved it, this theatre of the absurd, even though they could not remember how the whole thing began. They called for an improvised encore, a small excuse to avoid for a little while longer the rain that suddenly began to fall outside.
Everyone wanted someone to blame. Eventually, literature departments around the world closed. Those who most loved books were most afraid to read them. Criticism ended even before it was banned. Some librarians and professors with an aim of preservation took up a quick collection. They gathered all the texts that were not yet lost and threw them into the very library that housed their initial doom. They locked them up. The place was filled to the brim with volumes and volumes of literature. They threw in the dictionaries, the encyclopedias, the recipe books, the plays — everything ever written that still existed. No one was ever allowed in or out. To know that the books still existed was enough for those who had read them, and a real tragedy too, knowing that they would not be read again.
They burned the blank books. And in order to stave curiosity, they burned the criticism. They even sentenced to destruction the wide variety of vacant volumes being sold as annotated journals and relics worldwide. It was systematic and peaceful, born from understanding and not from malice. Families stood together and held each other with pride, in preservation of their human history. The smoke spelled out words in the air, imaginary ghosts of stories untold and told too much.
When they closed the library, there was no protest. No one tried to break in. The literary world patted its money-pocket and then forgot what it was that it had placed there.
CLOUD SPURLOCK is the receptionist for the English department at George Mason University, which means she’s pretty much subject to any number of somebody else’s whims on a daily basis. While earning her MA in literature, she keeps her nose in everybody else’s business.