“I replaced your books with other books. The covers are the same, but the content has been altered. I don’t think you read enough, but that is not why I did it. I changed every single word of some of the books. In others, just a single comma on a single page. This is a metaphor, but I’m not quite sure what it represents.”
-The Faceless Old Woman That Secretly Lives in Your Home, Welcome To Night Vale 31, “A Blinking Light up on the Mountain"
Looking at my bookshelf, I am horrified. There, side by side and mostly out of order, are the physical instructions on how to imagine hundreds of specific stories. Most, bound in attractive and colourful covers, contain stories I like - some that I love - and sit there as a self-assurance. One day, I say to myself, I will re-read those books. The stories on their pages are not ethereal. They transcend time. This is what I say, but I know it’s not true.
The Chuck Palahniuk books I loved so much as a teenager but am slightly embarrassed by now, fantasy novels based on tabletop games with titles like Trollslayer, innumerable H.P. Lovecraft anthologies - they sit there, each one having played an important role in time of my life, promising to bring me back to those specific formative moments I spent in its pages.
But nothing transcends time, truly, and the fact is, with the exception of the books on my shelf that I already have read multiple times, the stories on my shelf might as well have self destructed the moment I finished consuming them, Inspector Gadget style. Unless I’m going to lend it to a friend, an exceptional book stays on my shelf solely as a comforting failsafe. What if I need to pull a quote from one of my five editions of Dracula? What if there’s an emergency and I need to intimately refamiliarize myself with Stephen King’s The Stand? What if I just need to escape to a simpler time when I thought I was the only guy who really got Fight Club?
Those times will never come. The books on my walls are a manifestation of my denial. Deep down in me there is a fear that the good things I’ve experienced are gone forever (because they are) and when I look upon the rows of book spines on my shelf I see doors to those moments. If I were to pick a book off the shelf, however, and re-read it, my experience will be different thanks to a million different circumstances. The past is inaccessible. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In My House could have changed the contents of my books and I wouldn’t even know it.
In That Is All, the final book in John Hodgman’s Complete World Knowledge trilogy of fake almanacs, my fear of losing the past is made manifest. On the very first paper surface of my copy, above the word “All”, is the ominous (or is it portentous?) instruction to destroy the book, one day at a time. Each of the book's first 365 pages is part of a page-a-day calendar for the final year of human existence, the year of Ragnarok (originally scheduled for 2012, but hey, it could still happen).
Known as Today in Ragnarok, Hodgman’s future-gazing calendar of literary destruction is the perfect medium for a story about the end of all existence. Spanning multiple narratives and calling back to the predictions the author made in his previous two fake almanacs, his page-a-day of doom contains all the horror tropes you could ask for right alongside the best Stephen King jokes ever written.
As you read of the fabled nerd jock convergence, Nick Nolte’s June 9th awakening as the Mayan bird-snake god Quetzalcoatl, the return of an old-timey radio show everyone remembers but never actually existed, and a giant wave of blood from another dimension, the destruction should ideally be represented in the absence of book behind the page you’re currently reading.
Of course, as a person trapped in the ever changing present and terrified of the irretrievability of the past, I can never bring myself to actually go ahead and destroy the book. Part of me knows that I’m not alone in this, and that the instructions to destroy “That Is All” are in fact a thematically resonant joke, but they do illustrate my relationship with art perfectly. I am precious about it, I treasure it, I use it to build a fictional space from where I once came as a younger man. The books on my shelf look like the hallway I tell myself I’ve been walking through, that I can access somehow, and the first entry in Hodgman’s calendar is a reminder that they're just cleverly positioned mirrors.
In the audiobook version of That Is All, (which is the only audiobook you absolutely must own), the Today In Ragnarok section is placed after the main text and prefaced with the impossible instruction to break off a piece of whatever device you are using to listen in order to represent the passage of time. This underlines the insincerity of the request (the book is comedy after all), but I can’t help but wish I actually did have that strength of will to let go of an experience after it’s occurred.
But I can’t. My past is precious to me and the future is too unknown. If I were to reread every book I own, I would put them right back on display, each one now holding a new impression of me, the reader. They would all still loom over me, as they do now, from that shelf, serving as a comforting lie that I can always go back.
Still, I am aware of that lie, and in it I see the horror of my being stuck to the present moment. If only I would have the strength of will to do as Hodgman says, and arrive at day one of Ragnarok with nothing but a black piece of thick paper that used to be a book but now just says “THAT IS ALL”.