Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Reader's Heaven: A Cautionary Parable.

Commentary to follow in the next post.
Francis Omnilegens sat up in bed one night, reading a volume of Tolstoy. It was not, God forbid, War and Peace. Francis had read that last summer. No, it was much more important: The Sevastopol Sketches, an account of the Crimean War, was the last of Tolstoy's works that Francis had never read. (Francis, who had dabbled in a little Russian, preferred to call it Севастопольские рассказы to himself, though of course not to anyone else.) Arriving on page 144—the last—he smiled and leaned back. Tolstoy was now all his, a part of his mental vault that would subtly shape his worldview in innumerable imperceptible ways.

Suddenly, Francis felt a cramp in his stomach. He yelled downstairs to his wife, Frances, for a glass of water. Frances dutifully put down her Ugaritic grammar (her eighth Semitic language!), filled a cup with water from from the kitchen, and went upstairs to her husband. By the time she arrived upstairs, she found Francis lying on the floor: he had died of a ruptured gall bladder.

While Frances dialed for an ambulance, Francis opened his eyes to a glorious dawn. He was surrounded by ethereal clouds, which were somehow substantial enough to support his weight. The sun was rising exquisitely on the horizon. Francis reached into his pocket for his phone to take a picture, only to find that he had neither phone nor pocket. In fact, he was completely naked.

Suddenly, he heard the blast of a horn behind him followed by a piercing, pure voice. "Son of Man!"

Francis turned around. A tall, broad-shouldered man was standing in front of imposing golden gates. He carried a flaming sword in his right hand, and a halo of swirling flame crowned his bronze helmet. His fair brow was radient, and his eyes burned with celestial fervor.

"Thou hast arrived at the gates of paradise. I am the Archangel Michael, judge of Man and guardian of eternal life. If thou art indeed just, thou wilt surely enter into these gates. But woe unto the unjust soul; for I am like a refiner's fire."

Francis gulped, remembering that very afternoon, when he had decided not to mention to the Wal-Mart cashier that she had given him double the right change. And he remembered last week, when he had pretended to be busy in order to get out of visiting his half-sister in the hospital. Thinking about those incidents, and beginning to think of more, he stood silently in front of Michael, who continued speaking:

"If thou canst satisfy my interrogations, you may enter. First tell me: how much Jane Austen hast thou read?"

Francis breathed out, immensely relieved. "Every bit," he said with a smile. "Even Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan. I read them for their own sake, too: I didn't enjoy a single one for myself."

Michael kept his stern look, but he allowed a faint smile to disturb his lips. 

"Tolstoy?" he asked with unabated fervor.

Francis exulted in his heart, delighted at his narrow escape.

"I just finished him this evening. If you want, I can even explain to you why Allan Bloom is wrong that Anna Karenina is an elaboration on Rousseau's Émile."

"That won't be necessary, for I, the knower of secrets, know that thou hast complete knowledge of the Prolific One. But so much for thy secular learning. That is a trivial part of the soul."

Now Francis began to tremble, fearing that the real test was coming, which he would surely fail.

"Hast thou read the entire Bible?"

"I—I have, sir. I made a point of reading all the way to Revelation about four years ago."

"And the Apocrypha? Francis son of Frederick, have you read the Book of Tobit?"

An icy terror gripped Francis's soul, for he he had only read the exciting parts of Tobit. Under Michael's terrifying glare, he suddenly realized the major fault of his life: despite his best efforts, he had not stored up enough complete books to make his life worth anything.

 Suddenly, the cloud beneath him gave way, and Francis was hurled headlong flaming from th'Ethereal sky. In the vast caverns beneath, the Demons of Illiteracy hungrily devoured another ignorant and proud soul.

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