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The Book of Lost Words

In the Harry Potter stories, there is a book which (if I recall correctly) writes itself in response to questions. Jorge Borges writes of a book with an infinite number of pages in which one can never find the same page twice. C. S. Lewis, in one of the Narnia books, describes a volume in which the words form themselves into animate mental pictures as you read. And H. P. Lovecraft writes of a book which calls dreadful creatures from horrendous other worlds simply by being read.

Enchanted books are a staple in fiction. They can serve as symbols for so many things and are so handy for authors because the authors know that, if somebody is reading their story, the reader is already familiar with the power of books and words. This is self explanatory, of course, and so I never really gave it much thought.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that such books really do exist.

The magic book I discovered is called The Book of Lost Words. Actually, technically, it’s The Second Book of Lost Words. The First Book of Lost Words was, well, lost. I’ll explain that later, but first let me narrate my discovery of the book itself.

There was a time a while back when I was going through a great deal of emotional turmoil. The cause is unimportant; I have it in hand now. Not solved, mind you, but in hand. I’m sure that all of you know that a problem in hand stops being a problem and simply becomes a part of growing up; a process we go through until the day we die.

As you have probably noticed, I have always been an avid reader. As part of learning to deal with my problem, I became a compulsive reader. I spent, literally, every waking moment when I wasn’t working reading.

And I read everything. Newspapers, magazines, junk mail, seed catalogues, cereal boxes, novels, textbooks, essays, research, literally everything I saw I read. I read simple things, I read things I didn’t understand. As a matter of fact, as I went on I read mostly things I didn’t understand – not so much because I couldn’t understand them, but more because I was not reading things to understand them. I was meeting words as if they were long lost friends; I didn’t really care what they were doing there, I just enjoyed their company. I read entire encyclopedias without a single idea registering in my consciousness.

I never thought it would happen; I actually got sick of reading. But I couldn’t stop. I would wake up and read, and read when I fell asleep. And that’s where it got weird.

Have you ever noticed that the line between waking and sleeping can be very thin; that there are times when it becomes difficult to tell when you cross it? Imagine yourself in this situation – lying in bed, head on pillow, light on stand beside you, running your eyes over the black lines of type in a heavy book. You read each word, recognize it, then move on to the next one, reading each word in isolation without contextualizing any of them.

If you can’t imagine that, try this. You are watching a peculiar movie in which each frame is a completely separate image with no connection to the frames which came before, or the frames which will follow. How long would it take before… before… before what?

The brain insists on meaning. Would it begin to…

No. This is difficult. No matter how I hunt, I cannot find a glib explanation for what happened. Something did happen, though. Something in my mind, brain, consciousness, whatever, shifted, altered, became other. I began to drift into dream states, and in my dreams I read.

At first the dream texts were just like the waking texts. I read without meaning, greeting the words one by one then moving on. Later the dream page began to convey meaning. I was reading something, although I could never remember what I had read when I woke up. I could only remember that I had read something, and that it had meant something. Ultimately, of course, I began to remember what I had read dreaming.

I began reading The Second Book of Lost Words. The First Book of Lost Words is the book I read before I learned how to remember. Whatever I read there is lost for good, but I can still read the Second Book. When I need to know something, all I need to do is look at the book in my head, the one behind my closed eyes. It opens to the exact page I need and I read it. It always tells me what I need to know. And it hasn’t been wrong yet.

This is an odd thing. I can, however, wrap my thoughts around it, and it is, in a way that is not exactly clear to me, entirely understandable. But this fable doesn’t stop there.

The strangest part is that I began to find that I could read other things. Little sticks poking up through the snow, the twigs at the ends of branches, gravel and sand on the beach, clouds moving across the sky - all have meaning for me. I can read them all. As I drive in to work in the morning, I read the fence posts, the cows standing in fields, the seagulls picking worms in the newly plowed fields. The whole world is a printed page that is as easy to read as a grocery store magazine, once you learn how.

I don’t read as many books as I used to. I do read The Book of Lost Words regularly. Much of what you read in these pages was transcribed directly from that book.

Even this.

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Copyright 2010 B. de Corbin and Splendid Fish Studio