Conner made his way through the shelving, pushing his cart full of books to be returned to the shelves. He’d been working at the State Library now for a few months and loved the place. The history, the architecture, the books. A small part of him always kept a lookout for an unused room that he could perhaps move into and live here. No-one would probably notice if he did, but every single room, nook, and cranny was occupied. At times, he thought he could hear the whole building creak and groan under the pressure of containing all these words, pictures, artefacts; as if the addition of one more item would cause the building to rend apart and spread pages fluttering down across the city.
He was deep in the archives, placing books back onto shelves that only ever got pulled for research. Books that hardly ever got read. Books that once returned might sit until someone else was doing some obscure research into, well, looking at this particular one, the migratory habits of the lesser unicorn bat, mus volans rinocerotis. Conner pushed on, deeper into the archive, returning books to their correct homes until his cart was empty. Making his way back out of the archive, Conner got to thinking.
Conner pondered about the books that sat here. What if, he thought, there’s a book that’s never been read. Never. Ever. It wouldn’t be a crap book. They get read if only to find out how crap they are. That was the only reason for Dan Brown. Even the esoteric musings on the unicorn bat gets pulled from the archives on occasion. No, the loneliest books here must be absolute rippers. Page turners where you don’t sleep for reading, and when you finally drop off, the story infects your dreams like a virus, blurring the edges of conscious and unconscious.
Returning to the book drop off spot, Conner put his cart back into position and looked at his watch. Damn, home time. He’d have to revisit this idea tomorrow. Making his way out of the library, clocking off, distractedly saying goodnight to his fellow librarians, Conner set off home to a distracted dinner and night of restless, blurred dreams.
Next day, Conner was at the library, stamping his feet in the cold morning light, clutching a coffee strong enough to melt a teaspoon, waiting for the door to open. He’d skipped breakfast in order to get here early. In the night, he’d developed A Plan. A Plan worthy of a capital letter. Not that it was an entirely sophisticated Plan. As far as Plan’s went, this one wasn’t on the scale of building a new train tunnel or even putting together a Swedish flatpack, but it was A Plan and he was desperate to execute it. With something resembling a “Morning” to the night watchman as he unlocked the door, Conner was in, clocked on, and at one of the terminals before anyone else had arrived. And it was here that Conner executed his Plan. He accessed the report system, and sorted books by the number times they had been requested in ascending order. It was that simple. Thinking about this, Conner was no longer sure that the Plan needed the capital “P”, but there at the top of the list was one book – one – that had never been so much as requested. Ever. Not once since it entered the catalogue. Just one book. The book that Conner felt – knew – must be the best book ever. The book that no-one had read. He scribbled down its details, not even wishing to sully the record with a click, and down to the archives.
Conner made his way quickly through the shelves, slowing as he got closer, checking authors and titles until he reached the shelf. It was no different from the rest of the shelving. Did this shelf not realise what it held? thought Conner. Running his finger along the books, just hovering above the spines, Conner homed in on the book, closer and closer until his finger stopped, just not quite touching. There it was, the book no-one asked for. What had to be the greatest book in all of the history of literature. His hand vibrated ever so slightly as he reached out and touched it, and with a thrill of excitation running down his spine, Conner pulled the book from the shelf.
He turned the book over in his hands, examining it closely. It was bound in a sumptuous, almost velvety leather, dyed a deep blood red. There was a border of symbols or ancient text around the cover that looked like it had been stamped by hand. The back was bereft of anything, just the texture of the leather, and the spine had just the title picked out in golf leaf. On the front was just the title, embossed and like the spine, picked out in gold leaf. The book had a heft to it, like the words contained within all held purpose and wisdom. Conner brought the book up to his face, closed his eyes, and drew in a deep breath, savouring the aromatics of the cover, the old pages, the ink. With a sigh that frilloped up from the depths, Conner opened his eyes, read the cover one last time, and reverently opened the book to read.
Conner made it about half way down the first page when with a crack the book landed on the floor. Conner was now just a whiff of ozone and mist of carbon, being sucked in and filtered out by the environmental management system. The book sat on the floor, closed, a thick frost sublimating off, and just that little bit heavier than before.
An hour or so later, Katrina made her way through the shelves with her empty cart, collecting books to be taken up to the main floor. As she came through the no author recorded section, the section that shat her the most for finding a title, she caught just a slight electric tang in her nose causing her to sneeze. Looking down as she fished for a tissue, she spotted a red leather bound book on the floor. She picked up and looked it over. Victorian era at the latest, she thought, most likely earlier. Victorian era books annoyed her, and looking at the title embossed in some dodgy blackletter font, decided that this one in particular would annoy her all the more. She carefully slotted it back into the shelf and moved on, looking for her next book.
No, thought Katrina, some tacky bound Victorian era schlock horror novel called Thiever of Souls just had to be about the worst novel that could ever had been written.
* * * *
Mel pulled her cart to a stop at the machine and sighed as she did every time she pulled cart up to this machine. Bloody northern suburbs hipster hardware developers and their crappy backronyms. Seriously, the Digitising ENgine and Indexing Scanner? Who names something as advanced and important to a modern librarian’s life after a railway station? Thank fuck they weren’t based near Abbotsford, or worse – Mooroolbark. This thing was big enough as it was without needing to make it three times the size just fit the name on. At least this was the last day she had to deal with DENIS; once he’d had his way with final cart load of books, Mel’s involvement in this project was done. Today, the last of the rare collection would be digitised and DENIS could be sent up to new acquisitions and out of her life. That wasn’t fair though. Mel had a soft spot for DENIS, it’d be a bit sad to see him go.
Mel looked over her last batch of books and sighed. The detritus of the collection, the last dribs and drabs. Nothing spectacular to send off DENIS with. All the really impressive books had already been done. Mel grabbed the first book off the pile, fed it into DENIS and hit the “Go” button. With a whir and the occasional disconcerting thump, DENIS drew in the book and proceeded to digitise it, turning each page with a carefully calibrated puff of air and then imaging each page with a number of top of the line image and laser scanners. Mel watched the first few pages appear on the terminal attached to DENIS, and satisfied that all was okay, went off to grab a coffee.
She returned just as DENIS was finishing the final page and watched as it closed the book, imaged the back cover and spine, and then carefully ejected the book. Mel took the finished book, entered it’s details into the terminal, and then placed it onto the return cart. Turning back to the original pile, Mel grabbed the next book and repeated the process – minus the coffee (some of the time; Mel was well caffeinated by afternoon tea time) – until as the day wore on, she was left with just one book on the pile. Mel picked it up and was surprised as to how heavy it was. She gave it a quick once over – DENIS could be picky at times – and satisfied that it didn’t have anything too unusual about it, fed it into DENIS.
DENIS drew the book in and began the scanning process. Still a bit concerned, Mel glanced at the screen to see the cover coming up. It was all good. The deep, dark red of the cover was there along with the gold leaf title. She looked across at the scanning unit to see it turn the page and begin scanning the inside cover and title page. All was good, no need to worry. But, there was something about this book that, well, unsettled her. Something wasn’t right. Mel watched as it flipped to the first page and started scanning. Concentrating hard to work out what was odd, Mel turned to look at the image that was coming up on the screen.
“What the fu…”
Mel leaned in towards the screen. The images in the marginalia appeared to be moving. Shifting. Changing. She leaned in close to start reading the text. There was a crack, a whiff of ozone, and a slight mist of carbon hung in the air. DENIS’s precise scale updated the record with a slightly heavier reading and continued on scanning until it had finished the book and ejected it, ready to be re-shelved.