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••• The International Writers Magazine - Literary Challenges

By the Book
• James C. Clar

“I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms …”
Jorge Luis Borges

100 books

Browsing in a local used bookstore, I came across a hardbound edition of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. When I got home, I rifled the pages of the book and discovered the following manuscript folded and tucked beneath the back flap of the dustjacket. There was no indication anywhere as to the name of either the owner of the book or the author of the short narrative reproduced here. They may or may not have been the same individual …

I found it in one of those little libraries that people erect in their front yards. You know, “leave a book, take a book?” There are three of the structures on the route I usually take for my morning walk. Five, if I vary that route slightly. I must admit from the outset that I am much better at “taking” books than I am at “leaving’ them. I’ve always been a collector and have amassed over the years quite the collection. That collection has grown considerably since my retirement. But I digress!

100 Novels You Must Read Before You Die. What bibliophile could pass up such a tome? Not me. It was a hardcover and in remarkably good condition. I carried it the three and one-half miles back to my home, all nine hundred and sixty pages of it weighing in at just under five pounds. I should perhaps also mention that it was a particularly cold, bleak and snowy day.

It was some time before I actually got around to opening it up. It was not a book that one read cover-to-cover, of course. Rather, it was a reference work that one dipped in and out of, often at random and at one’s leisure. An avid reader, the text cast a spell on me. I had read most of the books named already. But for many of the titles, that had been years ago when I was in college or graduate school. Some of them I had not revisited since high school even. Compelled by what I came to think of simply as The List, I decided to start at one hundred and work my way to number one.

And so it began, “Call me Ishmael.” I re-read Melville’s mighty book with renewed energy and purpose. Nevertheless, I still lingered over many sentences and phrases and, at times I, too, hovered over deep “Descartian vortices.” There were moments when, in the course of reading the novel, I felt that my desire to finish all the titles on the list was in some ways equivalent to Ahab’s own mad quest. In the end the “devious-cruising Rachel” picked me up in time to move on to the next book.

I made my way through the likes of Lolita, Wuthering Heights, The Catcher in The Rye and The Plague as well as many others. When I reached the poignant last sentence of The Great Gatsby, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” I had an arresting thought. I was reaching the final titles on The List. It had taken me five years to get this far. What was I going to do when I finished? The quest to complete my journey had given purpose to my otherwise rather lonely and, frankly, somewhat boring life. There was comfort, too, about not having to “find something else to read.” Any bookaholic reading this must surely know exactly what I mean – that painstaking search to find just the right book to read next. The List had spared me that exquisite agony.

Another thought, a premonition even, began to form at just about the same time. Having always had a profound belief in the generative power of language – God had, after all, brought everything into being by speaking a Word – I began to wonder about that phrase in the title of The List, “before you die.” Would closing the cover on the last book, what the editors of The List deemed the “greatest novel of all time,” bring about my demise? “Marlowe, you fool, get a grip on yourself. You’re too experienced and too cynical to fall for such nonsense,” I thought in the idiom of The Big Sleep. I just completed the novel, one I had read previously at least three or four times and one whose plot, to be honest, still didn’t make complete sense to me.

Wise-cracking and feigned hardboiled sentiment aside, my nascent fear began to grow, to gnaw, at the back of my mind. I received a reprieve by virtue of the fact that my next book was Finnegan’s Wake. Given the length and inherent difficulty of the text, I could milk that title for years. I recall reading about a book club in California (where else?) that had taken nearly thirty years to finish it. Not to mention, the first line of the book was also its last. It was, therefore, a text that never actually ended – “a commodius vicus of recirculation” – and thus one that could (in theory) be read forever. But that would be cheating. I quickly came to the realization that The List, like Death, could not be hoodwinked in such a way. I had to play this ‘by the book’.

After years of joyful labor and, I might add, continued good health, I reached the penultimate book. The magnificent Quixote awaited and the noble exploits of the “knight of the sorrowful countenance.” The novel that had inspired scores of others works and was a favorite among the post-modernists who mined it for patterns, quotations, archetypes and all manner of inter-textual hijinks. My reading pace was loving and leisurely … excessively so.

Arriving finally, inevitably, at Ulysses, I paused. I had started this book three or four times in my youth but never made it past the fourteenth chapter or section, “The Oxen of the Sun.” I was in a quandary. I wanted to finish it this time but, as you might suspect, was fearful of doing so. The trick was, I had to abide by what I had come to believe were the cosmic and inescapable rules of the fateful game I was playing; what Joyce might call the “ineluctable modality” of that game’s structure and outcome.

Each morning, before shaving, I’d simply hold the book aloft in my hands and, in the words of “stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” intone “Introibo ad altare Dei.” I spent much of my time trying to devise a scheme, mathematical or otherwise, involving the number of chapters, sections, pages, sentences, whereby I could read the text systematically, but which would nevertheless consume an indefinite period of time and, thereby, forestall reaching Molly Bloom’s resounding “Yes” at the end of the novel.

Eventually, however, I realized that I was approaching the matter in the wrong fashion. What I faced was an existential and literary problem which, as such, required an existential and literary solution. I began scouring the Internet for book clubs that were reading Ulysses. I began travelling – something I had always wanted to do – from city to city, joining groups for a month or six months at a time depending on where they happened to be in the novel. It didn’t matter if they were re-reading chapters I had already completed with other clubs in other locations. For obvious reasons, in fact, that was preferred. The one stipulation was that I would, for as long as I could, avoid groups that had reached the final chapter, “Penelope.” Along the way, I was even requiring a reputation as a bit of an expert on the book, if only an amateur expert.

I was enjoying myself immensely. The whole endeavor was costing me a small fortune in lodging and travel expenses, but it was – given the possible alternative – worth it. I knew that there would come a time when I would have to stay home and resort to online discussions and virtual book clubs covering the novel, but I would cross that proverbial bridge when I came to it. For now, I was preparing for a trip to Buffalo, New York where a group was just beginning my favorite section of the novel, “Ithaca” with its precise, almost catechetical prose and structure: “What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged … ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’.”

Here the manuscript ends. A curious and slightly disturbing narrative. It’s easily the most bizarre thing I have ever come across in a used book. I tucked it away in a drawer and, for all intents and purposes, forgot about it. Some months later, however, I began reading Foucault’s Pendulum. It made me think about that strange manuscript I had found in its pages and its anonymous author. Was it a memoir of obsession or a half-baked effort at fiction?

I began searching the web and, eventually, in an online newsletter published by a Ulysses reading group in upstate New York, I found this item from a decade ago:

“On a sad note, it seems that one of our members, William Laudased, was killed in
  a car crash on Route 20 last Thursday evening as he was, presumably, on his way
   home from our meeting. William had only been with us for three or four weeks but 
   in that short time his contribution to the group was notable. He clearly
   had a deep appreciation and love for Joyce’s work and his interpretations were intriguing.
   It was obvious that he had lived with the text of Ulysses for many years. Unfortunately,
   none of us knew William very well. Our files list no contact information. Nor do we
   know if services were held or, if pending, when or where they are scheduled. Anyone
   with information is asked to contact the secretary.”

Was this the mystery author of the text I had found? I am not sure I will ever know for certain. In weeks of subsequent searching, this is the only reference I have been able to find to a man named ‘William Laudased’. Nonetheless, and as the author himself notes, literary problems demand literary solutions. His anagrammatic surname therefore convinces me that he’s the one. As an aside, I’ve just ordered a copy of 100 Novels You Must Read Before You Die. I can’t wait for it to arrive.
© James C. Clar  2.22.24.
James is a writer and teacher who divides his time between the wilds of Upstate New York and the sunny climes of Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to previous contributions to Hackwriters, his work has most recently appeared in The Sci-Phi Journal. Antipodean Sci-Fi, The Colidescope and Halfhour to Kill. 

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