er lasst sich nicht lesen
“it does not permit itself to be read”
There’s no experience quite like sitting in a bookstore coffee shop. The sights, sounds, and smells. The calming bustle of book shoppers; the soft screams of the café blenders; the hollers of orders being called. To simply sit and take in the scene as it unfolds like the pages of the book you’ve brought to read that day, which lies, before you, abandoned, forgotten in the face of such a scene. To observe within the safety of the dim nook in the corner — the best place, the one that you are always hoping will not be taken. This is definitely an experience like no other.
Today, I decided to delve into a mystery novel that would perfectly suit the gloomy, rainy weather outside. The story involves a detective who’s on the hunt for a serial killer who only kills on full moons. Right now, the investigation has burst into a chase scene, in which the detective is flying down a Victorian street in pursuit of the killer. The chase scene sends a rush of adrenaline through my veins that warms me despite the bookstore’s frigid air conditioning. I set the book down and take a deep breath. I always have to pause when books or TV shows or movies become too intense. I think it’s because I always want to prolong the feeling of suspense as long as I can before the often deflating ending of the scene arrives. This is much easier to do with a book. Everyone seems to be really annoyed when I pause a movie right before the climax.
I slip my book shut and reach for my coffee. I attempt a sip and almost end up spitting it out. Still much too scalding to drink and now I have a rather burnt tongue thanks to my absentmindedness. I hazard a glance around me to see who, if anyone, saw my embarrassing scene. The tables around me are pretty much empty save one old woman who fortunately has her eyes locked on a dense but compact mass market paperback. From my vantage point, I can make out the rather shirtless man in a kilt on the cover and the even more telling title of the Scotman’s Steamy Affair. I press my palm to my mouth to hide the giggle that threatens to slip from my lips. She’s definitely got better things on her mind than a clumsy, twenty-year-old woman who can’t properly drink coffee. I take a second to appreciate the courage it takes to read something like that in public. Though, I suppose once people have reached her age they tend not to care much what others think of them.
From the old woman, my gaze alights on the counter of cash registers, desolate and quiet. Although there appear to be many shoppers today, there don’t appear to be many buyers. There is only one woman manning the registers and she too seems to be engaged in an activity that requires a bent head; though my angle of sight makes it impossible to discover whether she is swiping through her phone or reading a book or some other activity that keeps her attention diverted downwards.
I shift my focus to the great towering bookshelves advertising the newest releases and the bestsellers for various genres. From my distance, I can barely read the genres of Fiction, Mystery, Horror, Nonfiction, and, frustratingly, I cannot seem to single out any book for closer observation. All the colors and titles seem to merge to form a greater collage that is both distracting and mesmerising. Until now, I have managed to steer clear of such a tempting place, but now boredom is winning out and curiosity whispers in my ear like a devil upon my shoulder. The logical voice of my wallet screams at me to remain seated but I rise and gather my things letting its cries resolve to a dull pang of reproach in my stomach. I saunter to the shelves, my eyes straining to figure out where to look first. This is a problem I seem to suffer when browsing bookshelves. My eyes can’t handle the visual attack of so many intriguing covers and ambiguous titles. I always completely lose my sense of time and space within a bookstore, my mind swimming with words and images in a way that often results in a headache. And I’ve always wondered if others experience this same disorienting sensation that is both exhilarating and exhausting.
While pondering these thoughts, I must have wandered mindlessly into the row of shelves. I’m snapped out of my dazed meditations by the sight of a girl, a bit younger than myself, crouching before a shelf in the middle of the row. Under her arm are tucked several books all with rather somber covers. The book she has just pulled off the shelf reads The Reaper and showcases a cemetery scene. A black hooded figure formed by shadows emerges through the fog, a sharp scythe in hand. The girl must sense my presence because she turns suddenly in my direction with an almost accusatory look. I’m able to deflect my gaze quickly enough that when her eyes land on me, mine appear to be deeply invested in analyzing the Nonfiction section of the shelves opposite her. Still, she must feel self-conscious or at least a bit uncomfortable because she quickly stuffs the book into her pile and struts out of the aisle. I don’t feel the least bit offended. I’m the same way actually. I hate it when strangers are near me while I’m trying to look for a book. I can’t focus on anything but imagining that the other person is watching me. I end up staring blankly at covers and reading and rereading titles and summary pages without ever actually comprehending them. And then there’s the whole awkward matter of trying to squeeze behind someone, to shuffle out of someone’s way; the ever-present anxiety that you are blocking someone’s view and the exasperation of waiting for someone to get out of your way. I’m glad the girl is gone. Now, I can peruse at my own pace and without constantly feeling like someone is looking over my shoulder.
I begin with some mystery books — my current obsession, as I previously noted — and then move down the line to some more conventional fiction. I cast a stray glance occasionally towards the Nonfiction section, knowing that I really need to make good on my resolution to read more nonfiction this year but also not particularly feeling inclined to begin now. Eventually, I get bored of these selections and head towards the escalator.
For some reason, I’ve always found it odd that a bookstore should have this sort of technology. Escalators have always made me anxious; the height, the too slow and yet too quick steps that propel you, with no room for resistance, either forward or backwards, up or down. I’ve often seen people, too impatient at the steady pace, who climb the steps instead of merely standing on them. Every time I try this, my legs feel turned to jelly, my head light and somewhat dizzy when I exit. But standing still on the step is no less unnerving. Now, as I do just that, I feel my heart thumping ridiculously hard in my chest. Looking down at the ground level of the store shrinking below me, my head swarms with vertigo. I grip the rail feeling like I’m swaying backwards but knowing that it’s not real.
Trying to take my mind off falling, I lift my gaze. Any glimpse of the upper floor is blocked by a wall of black. That wall is actually the back of a tall, broad, hooded figure, much like the one on the cover of the girl’s book. Whatever piece of clothing they are wearing fits more like a sheet, swathing them from head to toe — well, I guess head to heel — in a darkness that seems to suck the light out of the room. The fabric is certainly well made and probably very expensive.
Finally, the dreadful escalator ride comes to an end. The figure — based on their height and the sheer width of their shoulders, I guess is a man — dismounts smoothly and turns left. He walks without sound and, because even his feet are hidden beneath his cloak, appears to hover over the carpet.
Too occupied in rather rudely staring, I stumble forward as my escalator step is swallowed up beneath me. I whip my head from side to side. Thankfully, there is no one else in the direct vicinity, excepting the figure, of course, to witness my gracelessness.
I take a deep breath righting myself. I look again after the figure to see that he has vanished. I sigh, disheartened that I lost my chance to observe him more closely. I know I might sound a little nosy but I can’t help it. Once my curiosity is piqued, I develop a bit of a one track mind.
Disappointment weighing my heart, I turn right towards the much more extensive Fiction section. I’ve only recently begun to frequent these shelves, since before I had always been a bit intimidated by them. The idea of scouting for the occasional historical fiction or romance book amongst the judgemental gazes of books of literary merit has always made me feel ashamed. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the best way to fight against judgment is to ignore it. So, I slow my walk, throw back my shoulders, lift my chin and assume an air of nobility, of erudition, proclaiming with my every step to those long dead authors that I have just as much right to enter their halls as any other. I smirk to myself feeling their eyes upon me, their pages quivering in awe. With decorum, I, fearless, reach up and pull Outlander from the shelves.
I’m just about to break into the book, hop into a world of time-travel, hot Scotsmen, hardship, and romance, when the black figure streaks past the entrance of the shelves in the corner of my eye. I swivel, overjoyed to have been reunited with my mysterious fellow bibliophile. The temptations of Outlander forgotten, I absentmindedly set the book on the nearest shelf and hurry after the figure.
When I exit the shelves, he is there, a few feet ahead, floating on his merry way. Again, a victorious smirk slithers onto my face, I’ve gotcha.
Trying to keep my steps as silent as his, I pursue the figure, careful to anticipate his pauses and to match appropriately his tempo. Never once does he seem to notice my trailing, and mentally I applaud my mastery of stealth. After about ten minutes, he finally slows, approaching a row of shelves titled Travel, a section I didn’t even know existed until now. Strangely, instead of directing himself towards the entrance of the shelves, the figure approaches the side of the shelf.
What happens next I’m not sure I will ever be able to relate properly. In a tenth of a tenth of a second, an interval slimmer than a blink, so brief I doubt its very existence in the spectrum of time, the side of the shelf swallows the black figure whole. I halt in disbelief, dimly aware of my mouth hanging almost to the floor. I’m frozen in shock for longer than I’d like to admit. And then, like an avalanche, I launch myself at the shelf, slamming my palm flat against the dark faux wood. Solid. Firm. The material yields nothing to my touch.
Before I have the chance to even attempt to comprehend this phenomenon, the figure emerges from the end of the shelf some few feet ahead of me, turns left and continues his stroll, unfazed.
This time my shocktime recovery is somewhat improved. With hardly a delay, I dash down the row of shelves, determined not to lose him. But when I turn the corner he is nowhere in sight. I want to shout, stomp up and down at the unfairness of it all, the cruelty of fate to rob me of this chance to step on the thread that will surely unravel the most peculiar event to ever happen to me.
Suddenly, a weight descends upon my shoulder, a phantom hand locking me in place. My body jolts in a delicious pang of terror. I turn.
The figure towers over me. In the space hooded by his cloak there is nothing. No hint of a forehead; no jut of a nose; no gleam of an eye. Only shadows swirl within; the absence of light; the darkness between the stars; the caliginosity behind the eternally-sealed lids of the dead that brims with memories and missed opportunities.
Still, somehow that formless space manages to grin at me. The figure reaches within his cloak, with fingers made of nothing but smoke, and pulls out a wine-red leather book, detailed with glinting gold leaf. The book flicks open of its own accord, the pages fluttering like butterflies wings in a nonexistent wind. When the pages settle, the figure adjusts the book in his grip, turning it to face me. My eyes trail downwards, dragged by a force separate from my body and mind. Upon the page, sketched in chalky charcoal is our current scene. There I stand, entranced, eyes sparkling, awestruck. And there beside me, the figure, his head bent towards mine, a smile suspended within his hood, a book outstretched for my viewing. A familiar voice speaks within my mind, it’s gravely and smooth, ancient and fresh, “er lasst sich nicht lesen.”