Chapter 2: The Spirit of Solitude
They had three copies of that book. Only one was available for checking out. It had better be the one.
Especially given the effort.
If there is one thing that can drain the adrenaline out of my body in an instant, it is a flight of stairs. Climbing stairs are always a pain. There has never been a time, not even when I was young, when I have liked stairs.
They give you the feeling of walking straight ahead, not upwards.
A man going up should always feel the weight on the inside of his guts being pulled down by gravity. He should know that he is going in a direction God did not intend him to go in.
This is why I always like elevators. Straight up, they go.
I really hoped that this copy was it.
Rationality refused to bother me for once. I think he was feeling merciful for a change. For the better part of my life now, I have been listening to him and his reality checks.
On those stairs, he could have told me, “What are the chances that you would find something, huh?”
He could have told me, “Give your knees a rest, will you? Milds is milking you anyway. He will get another excuse to schedule some sessions with you.”
Milds is my physiotherapist. Of course, he is called something else, but he has the nasty habit of putting a cigarette in his mouth after he is done flexing my elbows and knees. “Milds”, apparently. There was nothing mild about the way he was charring his lungs. I never liked his smoking and I told him so.
He doesn’t care, though. He is in it for the money and he can do without paying attention to the nagging. He knows I need him. I need him as much as I need Rationality.
But yeah, as I said, Rationality chose to be merciful today. He did not knock on the door. So, I kept climbing up blissfully. I thought I would thank him for that. Therefore I introduced you to him. He will show up in the story once in a while. You might as well know him.
I wanted to sit down on the last step. My breath was racing away from me — I had to catch it.
Good old Rationality whispered, “It would be difficult to stand up again.”
I smiled — he was on my side today.
“Stand tight and don’t loosen that grip on those creaky bannisters. They might have been ‘made weak by time and fate [or termites], but [are] strong in will’, still.”
As I waited atop that last step, I looked up at the aisles in front of me. “780 to 940” read the second one from the end. I took a deep breath, braced myself for what awaited me in that rack and went ahead towards it.
I really hoped I would know who she was and what she would have said next. But more than anything else, I hoped I could somehow trace her. I really did. Which is why I was not entirely comfortable inching towards that rack.
Rationality was speaking up again, teasing, “What if there is nothing there?”
I stopped and said aloud under my breath, “Hey, you were quite helpful on the stairs. Don’t ruin it now.”
He fell silent for a while, and I took another deep breath.
The book on eye-level in the concerned rack was a 781.
There is a certain pleasure that only ghosts of libraries know about. Some say treasure hunters feel the same pleasure when they are wading through a jungle looking for the X on their maps. I wouldn’t know much about it. I have never been much of an adventurer. But I do know about the hunt for a book.
It starts with the feeling of power.
When you log into the database of the library, you feel powerful in the knowledge that you have all the information you need to track down the book. You know the Dewey Decimal number, you know the floor in which that Dewey Decimal is stocked, you know which rack on the floor has it, and you know that everything is sorted in a neat ascending order. You think you know exactly where the book is. And that you can get there.
However, more often than you would want, the hunt ends with the feeling of utter powerlessness.
Of course the book is not where it is supposed to be. Of course, someone is either reading it on some bench, or has just dumped it on a table, not bothering to return it to its rightful place. Or quite simply, it is resting in one of the several trolleys of returned books that library personnel wheel around, trying to take the books back where they belong.
And then there are the mischief mongers — the sinister ones who hide away a book in a place where no one will come looking for it. These books are the worst to find. Even the library staff usually cannot help you out in locating these.
This end is frustrating. This end brings you to a rack full of books, all in their place, all where they are supposed to be, except for the one book you want. How the universe figures this out, how it knows which book to hide behind smoke and mirrors, I still do not know. But this was the end the universe decided for me too.
921.2 M6B3 was not where it was supposed to be.
“How many times have we gone through this?” Rationality spoke out. “And you still fell for it this time too.”
“Very helpful, Rats. Very helpful.”
I call him Rats all the time. Rationality is just too many syllables. Especially inside my head. I reserve the polysyllabic words for the novels.
“Novel,” chimed in Rationality again. “No ess. Singular.”
“Are you getting back at me for the stairs?”
“I told you to ask the staff-boy to collect the book for you. But no, you had to risk all this in the name of an adventure.”
“Okay, okay. Think now. Tell me what to do.”
We both fell silent for a little while. Rationality was looking for ways to deal with this, while I was thinking back to what the previous letter had said. I did not remember it well, which is when I realised I should have taken a photocopy of the page.
“Or just a photo from our phone,” added Rationality without stopping the process of thinking about the missing book problem.
“Remind me to do that when we are down below again.”
“No, I won’t. This whole gallivanting is taxing. Irrational. Why would I seek to perpetuate this given its rather unusual nature?”
He had a point, of course. A point I did not want to argue at that time.
“The easiest thing to do,” he continued after a rather awkward pause, “is to press that silent buzzer in the corner and get one of the library personnel on board. They are rather skilled at doing this.”
It was a fine plan indeed, and had I been any younger, I would have gone ahead with it. But not today. Today, I was on a quest.
“We can press the bell…Or…”
Rats clearly did not like that word. “Don’t you Or me.”
“Or… we could go to where Bertrand Russell’s most famous book is kept.”
I would be dishonest here if I did not admit that it was on the painful way up the stairs that this thought had crossed me for the first time. I had been thinking about why Two Lives was where it was. Was it a random accident? Or was the book placed beside its most famous sibling deliberately? And if it was deliberate, could this be a pattern?
“We have gone through this already,” sighed Rats again. “The likelihood of it being a pattern is very low. Imagine how many things can go wrong with this plan. No sane person would follow this pattern. After all, there is a very high chance that the hidden books would have been found by the library staff and returned to their rightful place. Which would basically defeat the whole purpose.”
In times like these, I wonder if I am rationally mad. If I were so, my ghost, my spirit of solitude, would have been a more perfect version of Rationality. This version that I talk to and that talks back to me, is far from it. It is a version that is inherently pessimistic — a version which thinks only short term.
Is it not right that all art is foolish? And that true art is born only amongst the rubble of so many foolish things that broke? Long-term Rationality would have seen the sense in following the gut.
“Long-term rationality would have told you are going to die anyway.”
I wanted to disagree, but I knew Rats was right. Rats was always right, except the few times he was not. But those times came very rarely, and mostly when he was very drunk.
“I am not drunk now. Just press that button already. We still have to get down the stairs as well, remember?”
I pulled my smartphone out of my shirt pocket. I wanted to try something out.
“Bertrand Russell most famous book,” I started typing in the Google app.
“Just listen to me,” Rats implored. “we need to…”
“We, dear Rats, need to go find A History of Western Philosophy.”
“But, look at the results. Even if I agree to your plan, which I don’t think I will, I can see that there is no clear consensus in the results page about whether this is the most famous work of Russell. Just look at the cards: all of his books are right there. How are you picking this one?”
Honestly, I did not know and I did not really care at the moment. My knees were starting to hurt from the climbing and the standing, my eyes were starting to hurt from the looking for and looking up, my mind was starting to hurt from all the thinking and talking. I did not know how I picked it, but it felt right. It just felt right.
I walked back to the computer terminal I had noticed near the stairs. And I typed in the name of the book. “921.2 R1B2,” it said.
Thank god it was not on some other floor. Thank god that it was in this same rack. Thank god that there were more than five copies left.
“See what? Of course the book exists. Of course the book has a number.”
I knew that I was right. In that moment, I knew I was. So hurting knees, hurting eyes and hurting mind notwithstanding, I hobbled back to look for 921.2 R1B2.
The first copy I found was a red hard-bound. Somewhere along the line, it must have been damaged and gotten repaired by the library. Red hard-bounds were seldom the publisher’s choice, but somehow so many libraries around the world chose this. Maybe libraries liked the way red-bounds looked on shelves: rows on rows of similar looking books, drowning the silent observer in an imposing gravitas.
The other four were paperbacks, protected by transparent jackets pulled around the covers. These did not look as imposing.
“So, where is the book we are hunting?”
“It will be here. It will be here. I know it.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t know because it…Holy!”
“Hahaha. What did I say, Rats, what did I say?”
There, perched horizontally again, on a series of other books, was one solitary copy of Bertrand Russell: spirit of solitude. My 921.2 M6B3.
And there, sticking from between the pages was the paperplane’s nose.
I pulled it out, gently. It looked just like the one I had found in Two Lives. The same folds, the same inscription style. “From M.S to S.M” this one said, which only made sense. This was M.S.’s response.
I opened it up, fold by fold, careful not to tear the paper in my excitement. And the moment I opened it fully, I knew it was not the response I was waiting to read.
This is what it said.
I am hoping you know what I am talking about here.
I have collected digital copies of all the planes from this book onwards. If you have reached here, I am guessing you have found at least one that I don’t know about.
How about you drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org?
“Interesting, isn’t it, Rats?”
Treasure Aisle is a new original fiction series. In this story spanning two literary decades, the books in a public library will guide a retired one-hit-wonder-writer on an impulsive quest for finding a reason to love again.
The next chapter is already out. You can read it here: