While visiting a priest friend, the mighty Fr. George Welzbacher of St. Paul, one of the 5 smartest men I know and owner of nearly every book ever written, I took my ease of an evening in a comfy chair surrounded by a tiny percentage of said books and in pleasant conversation involving many and polysyllabic words. Ice and scotch tinkled in the glass. Wit and word-jousting abounded.
And then it happened. It was a moment so harrowing as to bring me back to the brink of a long-escaped but not forgotten black hole on the edge of Delta Quadrant. As I write, my throat constricts.
There in my comfy chair, taking my ease, Fate struck.
I innocently turned slightly to my right, as is my wont, and I spied it. The Enemy Book. The Book which caused me more suffering, more irritation and anxiety than any book I have before or since encountered.
I hate some books. I really hate this book.
Leap back with me three decades.
I was a grad student in the Classics Department and for my black sins I had to take also ancient history courses from, yes, the History Department. Therein we poor grads found an Ogre of a prof – of Irish extraction, by the way, which has tainted me in regard to that Island ever since, who announced above his mustache-less beard on the first day of class that he detested grad students from the Classics department, didn’t want them in his classes, and that he was determined to make our lives a living hell. He openly opined, smiling malevolently over the cringing, puling, now whey-faced undergrads, that we would never get a decent grade out of Himself.
He wasn’t kidding.
And thus we come to the tale of Gradstudent Zuhlsdorf and The Book of Loathing and Scorn.
The prof, as lethal and relentless as Species 8472, assigned us one book after another to read and review. And he was brutal. These weren’t fluff pieces. Fine. We did it. We were graduate students, after all, used to hardship, inured to abuse, seasoned in pain, suffering, humiliation.
Then, toward the end of the quarter, he wrote upon the board…
Hignett, Charles. A History of the Athenian Constitution.
O the black grief of the world.
He, Prof. Species 8472, had – with his stupid little beard – checked out any and all copies from the campus libraries. He knew also that the other schools in town did not have it. He’d had a plan, you see.
It was like a movie about a spaceship with a self-destruct thing that had to be switched off while battling the monster.
We all searched. In vain did we search. We searched, before you ask, both high and low. There was no chance, back in the day, of getting things from other large universities… and no time, such was his malevolent plan, long in the devising, deep in treachery, deadly in execution. This was the age before amazon.com and Google. And there was no time.
Finally, I despairing went to the Law School Library and asked, nay rather, grovelled before the librarian much as Aeneas consulted Cumaean Sibyl. The prof had their copy, and if only they would… re… re… recall the book, then we students could…. defeat the black-hearted Fiend. No dice. However, there came a ray of comfort from out the light-devouring singularity.
What Prof 8472 didn’t know, and what the librarian did know, is that the Law school had acquired a law library still in boxes and in storage. We found the catalogue and determined that in the myriad boxes was, in fact, Charles Hignett’s Tome of Despair.
I was permitted to hunt.
Xenophon would have cowered before this march through mounds of boxes.
I searched until my hands cracked and bled from the drying effects of cardboard. I breathed dust which I am still coughing up decades later. Had I known of the maledictory psalms in those dark days, O the sorrow and woe, I would still have them memorized now.
Then…. I came within sight of the sea. I had found it.
Charles Hignett’s A History of the Athenian Constitution… was mine.
I wept. I exalted. I danced a jig. I photocopied every damn page. Copyright? Pffft. This was war.
In my true entrepreneurial spirit I then sold copies to my fellow grad students.
In truth, I think they would have given me promises of their first born children or endless supplies of their own blood for a glimpse, yea even a saving touch, much less the Hated Book Itself. My demands were actually quite modest.
Who can guess what substance abuse the others engaged in to get it read and the summary written? For my part, I replaced my blood with coffee and, having propped up the book on a chair, knelt on my sweat-soaked hardwood floor with arms in cruciform and a notebook on the seat in front of me just to get through one soul-annihilating page after another.
We all turned in our papers on time.
History Ogre 8472 said, I am not making this up, “I shall not send you to hell”.
We received passing grades for our full, conscience and active participation in that hated class.
Charles Hignett’s A History of the Athenian Constitution.