The Book was three weeks overdue. Juno found herself running with it to the library, seized with sudden guilt, just before closing time on Friday afternoon. The State had tightened up their renewals policy after the new loans scheme proved so popular that the Books were starting to run out. As she ran, she wondered how a reading programme intended to build empathy and understanding through the ‘celebration of difference’ had ended up being a bit of a bun fight. There was now a three month waiting list for the most popular titles, and even the older books were usually checked out by lunchtime.
“Can I renew it – please?” Juno smiled hopefully at the librarian. The older woman was clearly embracing her role; she’d put together the classic librarian assemblage, from the pinze nez and bun, to the cardigan and sensible shoes. It wasn’t uncommon for people to dress in costumes which reflected the roles of bygone days (roles known back then as ‘jobs’) - from those times when labour was a commodity, and someone else decided what you were worth. During her run to the library Juno had seen a waitress, a park-keeper, and more randomly, someone dressed as a priest. Uniforms of all kinds were banned now, but strangely people still loved to dress up and look like each other. The imposition of difference had ironically resulted in resistance through similarity. Caught up in the librarian/wayward lender scenario, and the pleasure in acting it out, Juno half-expected to be shushed at this point. But the building itself was anything but quiet. Most of the noise, it seemed, came from the Books themselves, and she could hear a low rumble of conversation echoing through the vaulted atrium. Clearly the chatter hadn’t been successfully confined to the sound-proof reading rooms.
True to form, the librarian looked exasperated. “There’s already a waiting list – and this is your third renewal. What are you doing with it, for heaven’s sake? Memorising every word?”
Juno considered the woman in front of her for a moment before fixing on a strategy. This was a person who clearly loved stories; you had to, to toil all day for nothing in a place like this.
“I really need to know the ending. Just one more day?”
They’d burnt all the analogue books just before the revolution of 2021. It was during that strange time of interregnum – while the world was dying and waiting to be reborn. A time full of dark words from powerful and dangerous men, foolhardy, arrogant and incredibly self-assured. If there was a mood that Juno remembered from that time – and she couldn’t remember much – it was utter self-belief in the face of obvious untruths. Not just from leaders, but manifested through denial on a massive human scale; everyone seemingly blind to the world around them - a world that was rapidly falling apart. Old fuels disappeared quickly, but that wasn’t the only reason they burnt the books. In the pain of loss and shame, and a desire for new priorities and collective renewal, it seemed best to obliterate the past and just start all over again.
Back in her apartment, Juno ran her finger down the Book’s spine. When you joined the library you had to sign a long list of terms and conditions in order to receive your card; it wasn’t like the loan system she remembered as a child. There had been a bit of misuse of the Books; people using them like the old-fashioned dating app Tinder, taking out things they liked the look of and browsing with no intent to read them properly. Juno had been guilty of this too for a while, but told herself it was just natural curiosity. The rules now stated that there was to be no intimate touching of the books, other than the necessary functions of handling them. But she’d broken the rules twice already with this one. How could you really immerse yourself in a story unless you held it closely – felt its weight, buried yourself in its scent?
Juno’s latest book was called Malthe. He came from Denmark originally, and she loved his contrariness. Malthe dressed conservatively, but beneath the shirts and pressed trousers were numerous tattoos - words overlapping across his skin, so that reading him became much more than just an auditory experience. The slimness of his hips disguised a love of pastries, and he would smoke cigarettes on the balcony straight after the five mile runs he took every day. Juno loved to hear the strange words of his country and tales of old customs, from days before the removal of borders and the emergence of One Nation. He told of his life in Nyvhavn, describing the rows of coloured houses stretching down from Kingens Nytorv along the harbourside. He shared the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, and of other lesser-known traditions and folk-tales, and spoke of the power of ‘faelleskaab’ – togetherness, belonging and community; not only was it a different time, but it felt like a different world.
There were no stipulations about what you should do when you took a book out, so Juno used her imagination. She read Malthe everywhere; on the train, walking through the park, sitting on benches in the bustling squares, while the people around them bartered and traded. At night she dreamt of travelling, to visit the places of which he spoke so eloquently. It was loneliness probably – or that’s what Juno told herself – along with the power of Malthe’s story-telling. She’d read an article years ago, about people who were sexually attracted to intelligence. His words moved her so much that when she closed her eyes she could see them dance in all their strangeness, enveloping her in such a way that made her body seemed to vibrate with the echoes of them. It was very much like the virtual reality games that had been so popular in the days when actual reality got too much to bear. She had a strange sense that Malthe’s words might actually be written on his bones, or borne along on his blood cells. She wanted to feel him inside her too, but Malthe told her laughingly that he wasn’t ‘that kind of a book’.
That she only had one last day with the Book felt desperately unfair. A loans system should rightly reflect the length of time you actually needed to read something; although if she was honest, Juno knew she could have kept Malthe for a year and still not understood or absorbed everything he had to say. She’d planned a long walk and a picnic lunch, but for some reason Malthe seemed to want to stay near the apartment. He was unusually reticient too, responding to Juno’s questions with counter-queries and empty pauses, which she ended up filling. It took her until lunchtime to realise that this time, she was the one being read.
And once the reading started, the stories rushed back to her in a flood. Tales of childhood, of lost words and phrases, descriptions of food, of friends and pasttimes... and of growing up on a coast where the sea still lapped the shore and you could walk on sand rather than plastic. Of games that she would play with friends in the street, and of the libraries with real paper books in.
Later, back at the library, Juno signed a new library card. She hadn’t noticed before, but the phrase on the back read Veritas Liberabit Vos. Malthe had told her the same – that the truth will set you free – when he convinced her that it was time to tell her own story. Smiling, and brimful of words, she handed him back, and checked herself in.