The Book

By Ben Loory

Short Story

The woman returns from the store with an armload of books. She reads them quickly, one by one, over the course of the next few weeks. But when she opens the last one, the woman frowns in surprise.

All the pages in the book are blank.

Every single one.

 

The woman takes the book back to the store, but the manager won’t let her return it.

Right there on the cover, the manager says, This book has no words and is non-returnable.

The woman is angry. She wouldn’t have bought the book if she’d known there were no words inside it. But the manager simply will not relent.

The woman leaves in a huff.

She throws the book in the trash.

 

A few days later, the woman sees a man reading the book on the subway. She gets mad; she screams across the crowded car–

There are no words inside, you can’t read it!

But the man is defensive.

You can pretend, he says. There’s no law against pretending.

I think there might be words if you look at it under a special light, says a woman sitting nearby.

This other woman is holding her own copy of the book.

That’s so stupid! the woman yells. Don’t you see how stupid that is? Don’t you see that’s crazy?

 

At the next station, a policeman is called and has to break up the fight.

A television crew arrives on the scene.

The woman is interviewed on the news.

She complains loudly about the book for some time.

 

The next day, the book appears on the bestseller lists, under both fiction and nonfiction. The woman is furious, enraged, appalled. She calls into a radio show and starts to rant. She calls the next day, and the day after that, and then the day after that. She appears again on television, this time in debate with the author.

Your book is a joke! the woman says.

The author just sits there and smiles.

 

The woman becomes famous after a while. She even writes a book of her own. Her book cries out for the destruction of the first one.

In answer, the first book’s sales jump.

The woman is frantic. She doesn’t know what to do. She feels like she’s going insane.

And then one day on the street a man comes up and spits in the woman’s face.

 

The woman stands there– shocked, paralyzed. She hadn’t realized everyone hated her. She turns and runs sobbing all the way home. She locks the door and collapses.

She crawls into the bedroom on her hands and knees and hides underneath the blankets.

All night long she lies there sobbing.

She feels like she’s going to die.

 

In the morning, the woman unplugs her phone. She doesn’t want to be invited on TV anymore. She sits on the edge of the bed for a while, and then, slowly, she rises.

The woman turns over a whole new leaf.

She turns her attention to other things.

She takes up hobbies. She goes scuba-diving.

She even makes some friends.

 

Without the controversy the woman’s anger stirred up, the book starts to slip from the bestseller lists. It slips and slips for weeks and weeks, until one day it just disappears.

The woman’s own book disappears as well.

The woman doesn’t even notice.

 

The years go by. The woman meets a man. She falls in love and gets married. She has children and raises them and lets them go and watches them start families of their own.

She and her husband go through some hard times, but in the end they stay together.

And then one day, late in life, the woman’s husband dies.

 

For months, the woman is unable to sleep. She wanders through the house, feeling lost. She turns on lights, and turns them off. She sits down, gets up, sits.

One evening in the attic, going through her husband’s things, the woman finds a copy of the book.

She hasn’t thought of the book in years.

Slowly, she opens it up.

 

To her surprise, there are words inside– lots of words, printed plain as day. She turns to page one and starts to read.

She reads all night long.

 

And in the morning when she gets to the very last page, the woman finds herself softly crying.

It’s the most beautiful book she’s ever read.

She wishes it didn’t have to end.

 

*This story first appeared in The Bicycle Review.

TAGS:

BEN LOORY's fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, on This American Life, at Word Theatre, and on Selected Shorts. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) was a selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

28 responses to “The Book”

  1. I love this piece, Ben. I’m sorry it took me so long to get to comment on it.

  2. Ben Loory says:

    thanks, simon. i’m glad you liked it. it’s going to be a TNB podcast pretty soon! or at least that’s what megan n delullo keeps saying.

  3. zoe b says:

    truly beautiful.

  4. TammyAllen says:

    I hate to be highly dramatic but I’m highly dramatic. This story is about me. I cried. I’m not as crazy as I was. I was really crazy. I’m going through a divorce. I got super annoying lose all your friends crazy. I’m on the otherside now I think. I wouldn’t have gotten it a couple weeks ago. Thank you. I like what you make with you fingers and your brain.

    • Ben Loory says:

      thanks tammyallen. it’s about me too. and it took me four years of writing to find my way to the end. it’s not easy getting through that to the other side. in fact i don’t know if i really did it.

      thanks for reading.

  5. Kip Tobin says:

    Quite a good short story that reads a micro-fable.

    It also starts out exactly like Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Well, the premise does, not the style or structure. I wonder if you read that and got this idea?

    • Becky says:

      Well, not exactly.

      If on a winter’s night a traveler has words in it. Just not the whole story. And depending on what copy you have, the words are different. Chapters unrelated. And its written in 2nd person, which makes a huge difference.

      But I love that book. I’m so glad someone besides me has read it. I’m always telling people to read it, but they never do.

      • Ben Loory says:

        i’ve read it! but i don’t really like it. i’m much more of a baron in the trees kinda guy. (though invisible cities is cool too.)

        i don’t know where the idea came from, it just kind of was there in my head. but if i unconsciously stole it from somewhere, i do hope it was from this:

        I met a seer.
        He held in his hands
        The book of wisdom.
        “Sir,” I addressed him,
        “Let me read.”
        “Child — ” he began.
        “Sir,” I said,
        “Think not that I am a child,
        For already I know much
        Of that which you hold.
        Aye, much.”

        He smiled.
        Then he opened the book
        And held it before me. —
        Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.

        – Stephen Crane (1895)

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    I was always a fan of this story, Ben, before you became a celebrity. As you may recall, I read it the night you were celebrating the completion of the book in which it appears. Which is another way of saying: I was there first!

  7. […] become twitter buddies with him and basically steal all of his talent and read this interview and this nonfic piece and this fiction piece of his because I’m […]

  8. Justin Jainchill says:

    I sure do like this piece, with the idea of what isn’t being said working here as a kind of axiom for stories which defy the conventions of traditional narrative — that is, those more conventional stories that function mimetically, with a recognizable, albeit circumscriptive, dramatic structure. And so for me pieces such as ”The Book” are important because they’re anarchic; intentionally or not, upon entering the public domain, they effectively subvert the generic conventions ascribed to literary fiction, mainly in terms of how a story is supposed to work; its mimetic likeness to the world outside the frame of fiction, a fluid verisimilitude, a traceable causality, a rationality and sense of behavioural order, a dramatic structure with which to enact closure and from which to evoke understanding and meaning, the artifice of finality.

    Thankfully ”The Book” — as with so many pieces published in The New Yorker — forces us to consider the polemics of reading. To read is to create, and it’s an act which should never become passive. As with writing or authoring, reading is in itself a means of creation, of expression. If post-modernism tells us anything of value, it’s that language is not only unstable but fundamentally malleable, and therefore any linguistic expression exists in a state of constant permutation, for its meaning is always contextual and thereby subject to the governance of time and space, of author and reader, of speaker and listener: the vicissitudes of time and space render meaning, along with experience in general, not only conditional but decidedly ephemeral. Thus, what was read in one particular place at one particular time is never fixed, nor forever concretized, not in terms of constructions like truth, reality, knowledge, ETC . And to its credit, Mr. Loory’s story seems to engage the dialectics between readerly and writerly texts, as posited by Barthes, who was a fine theoretician in my opinion, and a thinker whose sensitivity to issues of textual expression was incisive and empowering, and to some extent totally subversive — and, for us writers, somewhat disheartening as well, when considered from a certain point of view, if the Author-as-God paradigm is in fact inscribed within our consciousness, which for most of us it is, I think.

    But getting back to Loory’s story, the merits of which I haven’t the time nor energy to further extol at this late hour, other than to say it reminds me of Calvino, as another blogger mentioned, but so too do I sense resonances of Donald Barthelme and Amy Hempel’s work, and for that we should all tip our caps and say, ”More, please, More,” in the voice of Dickens’ most ravenous child: my boy, our boy, your boy — Oliver, that wondrous and recalcitrant vagabond.

    Word.

    I sure do like this piece, with the idea of what isn’t being said working here as a kind of axiom for stories which defy the conventions of traditional narrative — that is, those more conventional stories that function mimetically, with a recognizable, albeit circumscriptive, dramatic structure. And so for me pieces such as ”The Book” are important because they’re anarchic; intentionally or not, upon entering the public domain, they effectively subvert the generic conventions ascribed to literary fiction, mainly in terms of how a story is supposed to work; its mimetic likeness to the world outside the frame of fiction, a fluid verisimilitude, a traceable causality, a rationality and sense of behavioural order, a dramatic structure with which to enact closure and from which to evoke understanding and meaning, the artifice of finality.

    Thankfully ”The Book” — as with so many pieces published in The New Yorker — forces us to consider the polemics of reading. To read is to create, and it’s an act which should never become passive. As with writing or authoring, reading is in itself a means of creation, of expression. If post-modernism tells us anything of value, it’s that language is not only unstable but fundamentally malleable, and therefore any linguistic expression exists in a state of constant permutation, for its meaning is always contextual and thereby subject to the governance of time and space, of author and reader, of speaker and listener: the vicissitudes of time and space render meaning, along with experience in general, not only conditional but decidedly ephemeral. Thus, what was read in one particular place at one particular time is never fixed, nor forever concretized, not in terms of constructions like truth, reality, knowledge, ETC . And to its credit, Mr. Loory’s story seems to engage the dialectics between readerly and writerly texts, as posited by Barthes, who was a fine theoretician in my opinion, and a thinker whose sensitivity to issues of textual expression was incisive and empowering, and to some extent totally subversive — and, for us writers, somewhat disheartening as well, when considered from a certain point of view, if the Author-as-God paradigm is in fact inscribed within our consciousness, which for most of us it is, I think.

    But getting back to Loory’s story, the merits of which I haven’t the time nor energy to further extol at this late hour, other than to say it reminds me of Calvino, as another blogger mentioned, but so too do I sense resonances of Donald Barthelme and Amy Hempel’s work, and for that we should all tip our caps and say, ”More, please, More,” in the voice of Dickens’ most ravenous child: my boy, our boy, your boy — Oliver, that wondrous and recalcitrant vagabond.

    Blah.
    BlahBlahBlah

    * Note* today my professor called my a philistine, and that’s high praise, too, I think…)

    WORD

  9. Justin Jainchill says:

    I sure do like this piece, with the idea of what isn’t being said working here as a kind of axiom for stories which defy the conventions of traditional narrative — that is, those more conventional stories that function mimetically, with a recognizable, albeit circumscriptive, dramatic structure. And so for me pieces such as ”The Book” are important because they’re anarchic; intentionally or not, upon entering the public domain, they effectively subvert the generic conventions ascribed to literary fiction, mainly in terms of how a story is supposed to work; its mimetic likeness to the world outside the frame of fiction, a fluid verisimilitude, a traceable causality, a rationality and sense of behavioural order, a dramatic structure with which to enact closure and from which to evoke understanding and meaning, the artifice of finality.

    Thankfully ”The Book” — as with so many pieces published in The New Yorker — forces us to consider the polemics of reading. To read is to create, and it’s an act which should never become passive. As with writing or authoring, reading is in itself a means of creation, of expression. If post-modernism tells us anything of value, it’s that language is not only unstable but fundamentally malleable, and therefore any linguistic expression exists in a state of constant permutation, for its meaning is always contextual and thereby subject to the governance of time and space, of author and reader, of speaker and listener: the vicissitudes of time and space render meaning, along with experience in general, not only conditional but decidedly ephemeral. Thus, what was read in one particular place at one particular time is never fixed, nor forever concretized, not in terms of constructions like truth, reality, knowledge, ETC . And to its credit, Mr. Loory’s story seems to engage the dialectics between readerly and writerly texts, as posited by Barthes, who was a fine theoretician in my opinion, and a thinker whose sensitivity to issues of textual expression was incisive and empowering, and to some extent totally subversive — and, for us writers, somewhat disheartening as well, when considered from a certain point of view, if the Author-as-God paradigm is in fact inscribed within our consciousness, which for most of us it is, I think.

    But getting back to Loory’s story, the merits of which I haven’t the time nor energy to further extol at this late hour, other than to say it reminds me of Calvino, as another blogger mentioned, but so too do I sense resonances of Donald Barthelme and Amy Hempel’s work, and for that we should all tip our caps and say, ”More, please, More,” in the voice of Dickens’ most ravenous child: my boy, our boy, your boy — Oliver, that wondrous and recalcitrant vagabond.

    Blah.
    BlahBlahBlah

    * Note* today my professor called my a philistine, and that’s high praise, too, I think…)

    WORD

  10. […] book coming out soon, but that’s another story. This story of Loory’s, entitled “The Book,” has a special place on my heart and NO, not just because it’s about books, though […]

  11. Uche Ogbuji says:

    How the devil did I miss this the first time? Ben, I crave more of this sort of work, and I bet many more do. You truly are one of a rare breed–the modern fabulist.

  12. […] Regales us with tales of an open (and blank) book… […]

  13. Meg Pokrass says:

    I love your writing. I will follow you anywhere. Yep. This is wonderful.

  14. Aaron Dietz says:

    You know, I think reading your book was the best thing that happened to me last summer, excepting my trip to Taiwan to visit the sweetheart (who was there for six months). When I think of your book, I think of looking forward to going to bed so I could read it. And that’s rare. This was one of my favorite stories in there, Ben. It’s awesome.

    • Ben Loory says:

      thanks aaron. that means a lot coming from you; your book kind of blew my mind. we should start a fan club for our mutual respect! i think everyone would join.

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        Yes, the Ben Loory and Aaron Dietz Mutual Appreciation Fan Club Extravaganza Neverending Road Show Tour Event! Club. Or something. I think I’m about two or three words short, still.

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