One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.
There was a reader with rare tastes, who found the small sum of books that he wanted to read and reread. After working his first job as a youth, he spent his pay to buy these wonderful books. What little remained he used for food and clothes. Work prevented him from having the time to read. Because of his literacy and erudition, he was hired by a library, and this seemed more conducive to his heart’s desire, but there he had to catalogue books, and still had no time to read his own. By and by, he was hired as a teacher, for it was clear that he had a real gift for words. Now, it seemed he would be able to read what he wished, but now he had to read and teach what the curriculum prescribed, and none of his books were in the canon, and none of the students were in the least bit interested in his books. From there, he moved on to buying a bookstore, supposing that with a better income, he would buy himself some leisure time to read. Again, he was thwarted. None of the customers seemed interested in the books he liked; they seemed more interested in hunting for trifles and recommending the commonest things. Moreover, the government required him to read laws, tax forms and other reports that stole his time and energy. The man grew weak and the bookstore went bankrupt. The man retired to a monastery, where he hoped the silence and peace would afford him a reunion with his books, but the abbot forbade him from having his little collection delivered. In despair, he burned down the monastery, and was sent to prison in exile. In the prison, he lost weight and suffered, but the warden, chaplains and other inmates allowed him to have his small library delivered, to read to his heart’s content, and even to read to them. Although he thought the pleasure of this freedom somewhat limited, somewhat short of the glory that could have been, he accepted his lot, and contemplated his books, wondering if he had chosen the right texts, and if the texts were really the same as they were when they had first shone their dark bold ink and soft, bone-white pages.
It was spring time. The scholar brought his paper on the revolutions of the spheres to the court of the academy. Despite the fact that his citations were all in order, the provost accused him of quote mining. The scholar revised his paper, adding summaries of the experts he cited, but this time the provost accused him of misrepresenting the sources and misusing the quotes, although the scholar could not see why. The provost demanded that for all future papers, candidates would have to supply the complete texts of the authors referenced in order to have their papers even considered for perusal. This was not a disaster for the scholar; he acquired the handful of books and departed for the office with his revised paper, but he could not even enter the courtyard of the academy, for all of its gates were cluttered and clogged with stacks and stacks of books. At first, the scholar was delighted. Is this a booksale? he asked a bystander. Clutching his head in his hands, the bystander said it was not. Some librarian had just submitted a new paper detailing the history of several ancient libraries and printers and had brought in all of his sources in accordance with the new laws. It is without question that half of these books are written in languages the provost cannot read, the scholar mused. The bystander laughed, and said, But look at all of the trees in bloom! Indeed, the streets had filled with white magnolia blossoms.
Some paraloi survived the long and disastrous space voyages to arrive on a strange and most serene planet of islands, high mountains, floating and sinking cities, and beautiful skies with captivating cloud formations. They were brought by gondolas to one of the main cities, a complex of canals and elegant towers stretching from the seabed to the sky. They passed through ancient colonnades and quiet courtyards with plashing fountains. They came to a pale white tower with a commanding view of the ships, harbours, islands, distant white mountains and open sea. It was twilight. The paraloi were served dark wines. To drink the shadows, said a diplomat, in an expression they did not quite comprehend. Night fell and brilliant unknown stars in illegible constellations burned beyond the windows. A bald, tall, thin man with a distinguished and pleasantly distorted face welcomed them into a vast library and orrery with windows and balconies complete with telescopes. It was said that he was one of the great oligarchs and also the head librarian. The paraloi plied him with questions, scribbling formulas and sketches on paper that had been provided for communication. The old librarian welcomed these with tears in his eyes, and at one point embraced a large piece of sketch paper, holding it to his chest with deep gratitude and appreciation. The local diplomats explained that this was the most thoughtful and beautiful gift imaginable, a truly respectful gesture, as the old librarian was a lover of cataloguing. The paraloi shook their heads and whispered, explaining what they had meant by their diagrams and mathematics in relation to the nature of matter, world-mapping and star voyages in their paralus. The old librarian smiled and gently explained that they were mistaken. Their mathematics and physics were but metadata, or cataloguing devices. The universe was actually a library built to look like a planetarium. In fact, one could call it both. Every planet, comet, cloud of gas, every satellite, black hole and event horizon was a book. The worlds were clouds of language and narrative. Wherever one looked, one saw something to read. The death of a star, for example, was not the destruction of matter per se, but a chapter in a book of changes within the great moment of the library, the greatest book. The old librarian was eager to hear of the other books in their corner of the universe. The paraloi were perplexed by his revelation and by his joy.
In the dark ages, a horseman was dispatched from the old capital to bring important news to a faraway country. Every hundred miles, the horseman briefly rested at the post station, mounted a fresh horse, and dashed off into the openness of the highway. All of the horses were beautiful and galloped well, despite their differences in age, height, and coloring. As the horseman traveled, he viewed a thousand landscapes, learned the migration routes of words and beasts, and dreamed of his country–its stone bridges, lampposts, libraries, teahouses and museums. After crossing the frontier on his last horse, he passed through the twilight lands of shapeshifting trees and dissolving beasts. There were sleepwalkers abroad in the land, gathering stones and collecting dead leaves. At last, he arrived at his destination–the cities of mist and sleep. The sleepwalkers lived in great mansions and ate well, but they never got angry; they never smiled or laughed, either. They amassed heaps of broken stones and dead leaves, storing them in their museums, teahouses, and under their bridges. In the halls of the diplomats, the horseman was received with a mixture of courtesy, suspicion and puzzlement. On a great round table, they unrolled the scroll of their official map, which they updated every fortnight. They pointed to the document, and explained that they could not figure out where the horseman had come from. None of the countries he had passed through, not even the old capital where his journey began, existed. The message he delivered–while understandable in its essentials–was incomprehensible, like the relic of some ancient and indecipherable script from an abandoned and forgotten civilization. They offered him sanctuary in their city. Otherwise, they feared he would gallop back into the nothing. The horseman gratefully and politely declined, setting off at once to return to the old capital. At first, it seemed as if the map had been right. The horseman recognized none of the landscapes along the highway, although he saw sleepwalkers raking leaves and hauling broken stones here and there. The frontier seemed lost. Despairing of ever finding his way home, he continued to ride. One day, only a few miles after seeing a band of sleepwalkers inspecting a stretch of dead trees, he came upon a land he remembered, a land far past the frontier in the heart of the empire. It was twilight, and the horse breathed with great difficulty. The old capital was still far, far away.
An old lecher saw a young widow praying with her palms facing upward, and having been rejected by her four times, resolved to report her deviant orisons. It was snowing as he made his way to the office of the tribunal that handled cases of heresy. The office was a maze and a library. The darkness was broken by the occasional red lantern, red as the seals of imperial rescripts. After walking for a long time, he reached the innermost sanctum, where the inquisitor sat reading romances and smoking cigarettes, an island in a sea of stacked papers and rolled-up scrolls. The old lecher bellowed out his case in one unstoppable stream, while cadres arrived embracing several unwieldly scrolls at once or carrying bundles of loose leaves stamped and tied up in string. Behold, the inquisitor said, all of the paperwork I must devour and digest. There is little chance your case will ever be found. To this court, your widow might not even exist. And you might not either. In fact, at this rate, her existence and yours is becoming a statistical impossibility. Night and day, the heretics, scientists and informers change their doctrines, their accusations and apologies, their rebukes and their rebuttals. All they do is revolt and report. Our ancient office cannot say with any certainty what the facts of any case are. The prisons are empty. All of the inmates died before the lawyers could sort it. The hangman has left to go begging; the scribes and copyists are starving. Another ice age is at hand. Before long, we will be rolling cigarettes or lighting our fires with all this paper. It is best if you depart at once. Return to your home while you can and gather some firewood.
When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground–that is an old proverb, the young man said, as he cared for the invalid lying by the side of the great road, the road of caravans and elephant migrations. Do not fear, little one, the old man wheezed as his soul began its departure, for I am too old to remember if I was illiterate or not.