3. Mortal Words

Whenever he was suffering from writer’s block Franklin would visit Immortal Words, the town’s biggest second-hand bookstore. He’d often find inspiration there, browsing among the books, and flipping through their pages. However, one day he found a shitload more inspiration than he bargained for.

“Excuse me, sir.”

He turned around to see a boy, no more than 10 years old, gaping up at him.

“Yes, mate?”

“I’m looking for the classics section, Mista.”

“The classics section?” Franklin said, scratching his head. “I didn’t know there was one.”

There were many thousands of books at Immortal Words – in fact, many hundreds of thousands. There were over 20 rooms packed with volumes old and new, both upstairs and downstairs. The owner James Morton loved books, all books, unconditionally. He loved good books and bad books, fiction and non-fiction, cult and literary, bestseller and bargain bin. In over 20 years James had never turned a book away.

“Have you tried upstairs?” Franklin suggested.

“Um, no – the fella by the desk said it was down here.”

“Oh,” Franklin said, looking about helplessly. He could see books on every conceivable subject – memoirs, and essays, and poems, and biographies, and…

“Oh, look,” he noted, on seeing the word ‘Classics’ scrawled in barely readable ink on one of the shelves. “There it is,” he pointed.

“Gee, thanks Mista!”

“One little shelf?” Franklin frowned. “That’s not much, is it? What’s the definition of a classic?” he wondered aloud.

“A book that’s stood the test of time,” the boy replied matter-of-factly, as if he’d heard that phrase many times, enunciated in exactly that way.

“Really?” Franklin grimaced. “That’s the definition – a book that’s stood the test of time?”

“Uh huh,” the boy nodded distractedly as he looked at the shelf. “Oh cool,” he squealed. “This is what I wanted!” He extracted a tatty copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “Thanks Mista,” he yelled, as he sped off to pay at the front desk.

Quizzically, Franklin bent down to look at the books. They were the same books that had been ‘classics’ when he was a boy – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Pride and Prejudice; The Scarlet Letter; The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Most of them were between 100 and 200 years old, but some were a fraction older. William Shakespeare‘s works were almost four hundred years old, but the numbers plunged dramatically from there. There was only one surviving text from the middle ages – Chaucer’s The Nun’s Tale. And The Symposium by Plato was the only work older than that. Perplexingly, most of human history was simply not represented.

And that’s when he had his Eureka moment. You see – that’s when he turned around to behold the thousands of other books in store, stacked to the ceiling, spilling over from shelf to shelf, and room to room.

“Jesus Christ,” he gasped, as the realisation struck home. Before him there were two storeys and 20 rooms packed with books that were never going to stand the test of time. All of them, good or bad, loved or hated, faced oblivion before the next 100 years was up.

“You alright there, Franklin? You look a bit white.”

He turned around to see the shop’s owner James Morton staring at him in concern.

“James, I’ve had an epiphany.”

“Another one?”

“Yes, my God, James, listen,” Franklin heaved, “the notion that writing something great promises immortality, that somehow your creation will remain long after you’ve passed on, well,” Franklin bristled, “it’s a gross miscalculation! In fact,” he spat, “if it’s immortality you want you’d be better off scratching your name into a cave wall.”

“You think so?”

“Look at all these books!” Franklin exclaimed, gesticulating to the shelves crowding in all around them. “Now look at your miserable little ‘Classics’ section! Immortal words indeed!”

“Mmmm,” James conceded. “I see your point.”

“And why did these books survive? Why are these considered ‘Classics’? It’s completely random. I mean, come on – Treasure Island?” Franklin moaned. “Really?”

“I liked Treasure Island,” James objected.

“James, it’s just a piddly little yarn about pirates! How many great books from Victorian England have disappeared? Books we’ve never even heard of. Instead we have Treasure fucking Island.”

“Well, that’s no reason to be upset.”

“Oh really?” Franklin fumed. “Maybe if you’re not a writer, James! But if you’re a writer it’s bloody devastating. Deep down every one of us has been led to believe that our work will endure if we can only write a book good enough. That’s the great self-deception, perpetuated down the centuries from who the fuck knows where. The truth is, even if I could write my  masterpiece it wouldn’t have a hope in hell. Not even the so-called ‘Classics’ last long. A hundred years from now Treasure Island will have disappeared too. There are no immortal words.”

Silence fell between them, as they contemplated that point. As lovers of books they had each, in their own way, invested their lives in that lie. It was a lie that couldn’t be attributed to anyone in particular; and a lie that no one had ever actually examined.

“All the pain, all the effort, all the trauma – all for nothing,” Franklin groaned. “Years of bleeding all over the page for no money, or reward, or recognition. A life wasted on words that won’t even outlive my dog!”

“Are you going to stop writing then?” James Morton frowned.

“Stop writing?” Franklin turned to him. “Are you kidding? This is too good to let go. What an insight – what pathos, what tragedy! This is the story I’ve always wanted to write. This could be my Frankenstein, my Great Expectations, my Hamlet!”

“Where are you off to now then?” James asked, as Franklin scrambled to the exit.

“Home,” Franklin shouted back. “Books don’t write themselves, you know.”

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