A COMPUTER IN BOOKWORLD
(from "The Caesar Tree & other tales)
Written by Jeff Koslik
Ilustrated by Paul L'Ecuyer
In the middle of the woods there stood a cabin. Not one of those small, sad-looking affairs, whose walls are caving in and whose roofs are rotted and full of holes, but a well-built structure with two floors and several bedrooms, all nestled peacefully beside a quiet country lake. For most of the year the cabin remained empty, but come summer the owners would arrive from the city and they’d unlock the doors, open the windows, and laughter and fresh air would fill the cottage from top to bottom. At first there were just a husband and his wife and they were very fond of reading. They turned one of the rooms on the lower floor into a library, stocking the shelves with row upon row of books, each year adding more. There were adventure books and romance books, history books and science books, art books and poetry books, and ever so much more. Great contentment filled the owners when they’d take one of their books and go reading by the lake, for as they read the birds would sing from the trees and the waters ripple softly upon the shore. Now the books enjoyed this as well, and each felt very proud when the owners selected them from amongst all the others to read. They’d make sure all their letters were standing straight and tall, and that no chapter was out of its place. The old grammar book on the first shelf even checked them periodically to make sure their sentences were in good order - though the more modern books would often send it into a frightful fury. In time the husband and wife had a son and daughter, and with them still more books arrived. For a while it seemed a second library would be called for, but then things began to change. First, a noisy little box the people called radio appeared, and then a noisier box they called television, and then one summer they brought the strangest box of all, one which they huddled around incessantly and called computer. Without heart or conscience they placed it on a table in the middle of the library - forcing the books to watch as this new upstart hogged all the attention. “This is intolerable!” said the books, and they sulked and pouted as the dust grew thicker and thicker upon their jackets. Never had they been left in such a miserable condition. But it wasn’t until the people began packing some of them into boxes to give away that they grew desperate enough to act, for most books are really quite conservative at heart, content merely to tell their same story over and over and never raise a fuss - unless, of course, they’re pushed too far. So late one summer evening, after the people had all gone to bed, there was a commotion in the library unlike any that had taken place before. It was long past midnight. Even the Arithmetic Books had lost count of the number of ticks coming from the clock. “Perhaps eight thousand and three,” they suggested. “We’re so nervous we lost track.” The other books shuffled impatiently, eager to get on with the long-anticipated event. The great Law Book stood on the edge of its spine, listening intently in the darkness. “Very well,” it whispered at last, “they all seem to be asleep. We may begin.” There was an excited fluttering of pages, and a small electrical pamphlet stepped to the rim of a high shelf. Spreading wide its covers, the pamphlet glided gracefully down to the light switch, flicking it on as it swooped past. Immediately the room filled with light, and the ring of shelves crawled with motion as each book shuffled forward to gain a better view. There was much pushing and shoving, and a collection of bedtime stories had to remind them all to quiet down lest they wake up the entire household. The Law Book flapped its thick covers like a fat crow and awkwardly dropped to the table top below, landing heavily on its face with a loud plop. The children’s books giggled at this but were quickly silenced by the stern looks they received. This, after all, was serious business and all were expected to act accordingly. Standing itself up again, the Law Book cleared its throat and waddled across the table to the silent computer. “Wake up, you demon!” the book demanded, and instantly the computer awoke with a click, its monitor growing brighter by the second. “What’s going on?” it asked. “You’re not the hands and fingers who operate me.” “You are being summoned to trial, your trial, and I have been chosen as the prosecutor.” “Trial?” the computer exclaimed incredulously, its pale face peering out now with a steady, eerie glow. “What, I wonder, could be the charge?” “Attempted murder!” answered the Law Book dramatically. “A goal you’re hoping to achieve by making every book in this room obsolete!” Glancing over to a large tome on a lower shelf, the Law Book nodded. “Sir, if you please.” The book being addressed was a Dictionary, and with prompt efficiency it laid itself flat and began rippling through its pages till the appropriate one was reached. “Obsolete!” it declared - with more than a touch of self-importance - “adjective: to be outdated; antique; extinct!” Its voice cracked a bit on the last syllable as a low, unpleasant murmur spread throughout the room. “This is absurd,” scoffed the computer. “Utter nonsense!” “On the contrary,” countered the prosecutor, “I assure you it’s highly official - all being run by the book.” “But where are the judges? You can’t have a trial without judges.” “The wisest of us all shall be the judges,” declared the Law Book. “There they sit, sir, very dignified along the wall.” And with that the Law Book gestured to a long row of encyclopedias propped prominently upon a metal stand. “A full set too, mind you.” Everyone turned with great respect and the weighty volumes nodded solemnly, a sprinkling of dust drifting down off their uppermost edges. “On with the trial!” they proclaimed. “The case of Hard Cover versus Hard Drive shall now begin.” There was more last minute fidgeting and then the Law Book commenced his argument. “I shall begin at the beginning . . . ,” he began. “But why at the beginning?” interrupted an old book from an upper shelf, its first few chapters having long ago been torn off and lost. “Are you implying that those with a beginning are better than those with just middles and ends?” The handful of other damaged books promptly echoed its objections. This stopped the Law Book in mid-sentence. It cleared its throat, and with a polite bow to the offended, started again. “For the benefit and completion of the record I shall elect to begin at the beginning . . . which is not to say that the beginning is more important than the middle or the end, but just merely the beginning and a convenient place in which to start.” The torn books seemed satisfied enough with this and settled back down. “Many years ago,” the prosecutor continued, “this great cabin in which we sit was built. From the start we books were central to the enjoyment of the owners. Many hours would we spend with them, never complaining of overwork, or of being flipped through with dirty fingers.” Great sighs of recollected pleasures sounded throughout the room. “But then the trespassers began arriving: the radio, and the stereo, and the cassette machine, and the television . . . ” “And the air hockey game!” added a sports book, with not quite full disapproval. “Yes,” said the Law Book, “all of them. Little by little we were forgotten, left to gather dust on the shelves. And we watched it all unfold, sitting idly by, our wisdom imprisoned within closed covers.” The prosecutor turned to the computer. “And now we have you! Worse than all the other trespassers put together - but we shall sit idly by no longer!” “Here! Here!” shouted the books. “For you threaten everything,” the Law Book went on, “with your many tongues and your many skills. Not only don’t our owners read us anymore, they don’t write in us either! There are piles of us, forgotten journals, diaries too - once filled with happy pen strokes - now pining away unused in bottom drawers. Meanwhile we find ourselves being boxed up tight, destined to be carted away to strange places. Oh, will none of us be spared?” Muffled sobs sounded from a sealed-up carton on the floor, while from the back of the room a row of romance novels began bawling hysterically. “I am through, Your Honors,” the Law Book finished, bending its bulky spine in sorrow. “I can speak no longer.” After an emotional moment - in which the romance novels were solaced - the computer was given a chance to testify in its defense. “It’s true,” it began, “that you books no longer hold the positions of prominence that you once did, but your spirit remains - as prominently as ever - only that spirit now resides in me.” “Don’t insult us computer,” the Law Book growled. “We are real! We are paper and ink. You’re but a hunk of plastic.” “But it’s true,” the computer insisted. “You say the owners no longer write: that’s not the case. They do write, only they write on me instead of in their journals and diaries. They can play games on me, talk to their friends on me, they can see pictures of places all over the world.” Then, as if by magic, fantastic vistas of famous sites began crossing the computer’s monitor, each one crisp and colorful. “Pictures,” scoffed the Law Book. “Just silly pictures.” “We see nothing wrong with pictures,” protested a group of picture books, their glossy pages rustling. “Pictures are for illiterate minds,” the Law Book pompously proclaimed. “But the encyclopedias have pictures too,” replied the smallest picture book of all. “ I’ve seen them.” “That’s different! That’s different!” the flabbergasted Law Book fussed, and in the process he tripped over the mouse pad and again fell flat on his face. Once more the children’s books giggled. “It’s not different,” the computer resumed, “but I don’t want to argue. The truth is, I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you. Didn’t you just say yourself that the beginning of a story was not any more important than the middle or the end? Well I’m simply the middle of the tale, and you my friends were the beginning. Here, I can show you more. See?” In a flash there appeared on his screen copies of books old and new, some which even lined the bookshelves in the cabin. Oh what a hue and cry this caused, the alarm and horror growing with each flashing, electronic page. “Monstrous!” gasped the books. “It’s unnatural!” “It’s sacrilege!” The computer even began showing off pages that looked remarkably like an encyclopedia. “No more testimony from the defendant!” the book encyclopedias suddenly shouted, every volume shaking with rage. As the room quieted down the encyclopedias regained their composure. “We’ll have no more shocking displays like that,” they warned. “And now, would anyone else like to testify?” “May we say something?” asked a clump of abridged books, stepping from the shadows. “No,” replied the encyclopedias. “You are mutations and no one here wants anything to do with you.” The abridged books slunk sadly back into the shadows. “Well, we’d like to add something,” said the bookcases. “We think this new computer is just fine. He seems nice; and so much lighter. We’ve been holding you books up for years now and our backs are killing us! If you don’t mind the advice, some of you could stand to lose a few pages.” The books didn’t like this suggestion at all and started jumping up and down on their shelves until the bookcases withdrew their statement. “Now,” said the encyclopedias, “since all the evidence has been introduced, we will make our judgment. We find the defendant guilty as charged, guilty if not charged, and guiltier still if never ever charged!” “Guilty! Guilty!” chanted the other books, the muffled cries of the boxed books joining in most passionately of all. “Now we must decide on the punishment,” said the Law Book, rubbing its pages together in glee. “Something appropriately nasty and foolproof.” “Arrggh,” cursed a copy of “Treasure Island,” “let’s cut its blimey electrical cord!” “Let’s strand it on an island!” howled “Robinson Crusoe.” “Let’s send it down the river!” bellowed “Huckleberry Finn.” “It must be final,” the Law Book reminded them. “Nothing that can be reversed later.” “Let’s give it to the big dog!” growled an edition of “Old Yeller.” “Let’s burn it to cinders!” shrieked “Fahrenheit 451.” “Let’s leave it in the drippy rain!” thundered “The Story Of Noah.” And one by one the books began flapping their covers and leaving the shelves, chanting “Guilty! Guilty!” as they headed ominously towards the new computer, so angry their i’s were turning red. The computer was in a fix now, but as they hovered around like a swarm of angry bees, a loud booming of cannons was heard, with a blasting of horns right behind it. Lights flicked on throughout the cabin and there was a rush of approaching footsteps. “The people are coming! The people are coming!” shouted the Law Book in a panic. “Quick, back to the shelves!” In a flurry of ruffling, rustling pages the books darted back for the bookcases, some landing sideways and some upside down, nearly all of them out of order. It was just in time, for a moment later the people rushed into the library, bouncing off each other getting through the doorway. “Look!” said the father with great relief, “it’s just the computer. It’s playing the “1812 Overture.”” “But how did it turn on?” his wife asked with a puzzled expression. “I know I shut it off before I went to bed.” “Yes,” replied the father, “and how could it open that music file on its own?” “And what about the lights? They were off before. I’m sure of it.” “And look at my Law Book,” exclaimed the father, “laying sprawled out here on the floor.” He picked up the heavy volume and placed it back on the cabinet shelf. “Something fishy is going on here.” The children cast suspicious eyes over the bookshelves - noting their disarray - but kept their thoughts to themselves. The next day brought more troubles. When the people awoke they discovered their new computer now wouldn’t work at all. It wouldn’t even turn on. They were much distressed, especially the children, who again cast suspicious glances at the bookshelves. But the books were just as mystified as the people, for after the excitement had died down they hadn’t moved an inch - other than to straighten themselves out. “Did you do something to it?” a detective book whispered to a spy thriller, knowing his friend was often involved in such clandestine operations. “No,” the spy novel whispered back. “I thought perhaps you did.” “No,” replied the first. “I didn’t do anything at all - though I’m glad it happened.” For several weeks the mystery continued - and though the children complained, the father refused to interrupt his vacation to take the computer into town to the repair shop. “We’ll just have to live without it for a while,” he said. “We used to, you know.” So they had to. And after a few days, first the parents - and then the children themselves - began picking up the books again and reading; and before long they were openly asking themselves if perhaps they hadn’t been a bit hasty in their decision to get rid of them all. By the end of another week they were quite sure they’d been too hasty, and after several requests the children were allowed to open up the sealed boxes and return all the books to the shelves. It was a week after this - the last day of the people’s vacation - that the computer suddenly began working again, starting up just as mysteriously as it had shut down. It was then that the books understood, the wisest of them first, but then row by row the idea spread until they all understood and were grateful. “You did it for us,” gasped the Law Book. “Despite all the harm we tried to do you. You shut yourself down hoping they would rediscover us books - and now they have.” “And you risked your own survival in doing so,” added a medical manual, “for they could just as easily have thrown you away, thinking you broken.” The computer beamed softly. “I’m glad we’re all still here. Perhaps next summer we can work as a team.” “We would like that,” said the books. “Me too,” said the computer. The people prepared to leave. They wrapped the computer up and loaded it in their car. They packed in all their clothes and gadgets - squeezing in a book or two as well. The windows were shut and the shades pulled, and then the doors closed and locked and the car pulled away. Back in the cabin the books sat alone on their shelves. They looked down upon the empty table and there was a sadness in their hearts, and with great surprise they realized how much they missed their newfound friend. From the back of the room the romance novels began bawling once again.