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A Different World

In the Age of Reading nothing mattered more than the perusing of words. This was an age when people where enthralled by written words. This was an age when words on a page drew people in with a formidable force. And these people read avidly, happily, enthusiastically, caring for nothing more than the torrent of words that swarm in front of their eyes. This was an age in which everyone read books. The housewife after doing her chores snuggled up to the bed and read. The businessman, in-between meetings, opened a book and read. The aged man on his dying bed clung to a book and read. Even the young with their hyperactive lifestyle and their youthful exuberance still found a solemn space in which they opened a book and read. Everyone was mesmerized by the sceneries evoked by words, an alluring domain much more appealing than the world as it were.

In this Age of Reading, people were able to understand each other better such that dissent was almost completely obliterated, and diversity was celebrated. Because books contain peoples’ interior worlds, it became easier for one person to comprehend what another person was going through, and even to empathize with that other person. Straight people understood the lives of gay people. By reading the memoirs of these gay people, they understood that being gay wasn’t all about sex that love mattered to these people too. Men understood the plight of women by reading the autobiographies of women who had suffered under the terrifying force of patriarchy. The wealthy understood the grief of the poor by reading biographies of people who were so destitute that they couldn’t afford one meal per day. With books, injustices were made evident, and there were moves to correct those injustices, to purge the anguish of humanity, creating a world where serenity and happiness prevailed. And for a while serenity and happiness did prevail. But then soon, darkness emerged.

It started with a rumor that someone had written a dangerous book and sent it out to the world. At first, people leaned no credence to this rumor, not realizing just how dangerous this book was. It was after three persons died after reading the book that people began to take the rumor of the existence of a deadly book very seriously. The first victim was a female student named Nkechi who had happened upon the book by accident in the library. She picked out this book from the shelf, opened it and once she began reading, she just couldn’t stop. She paused just long enough to tell the librarian that she would be borrowing the book, and on her way back to the hostel she continued reading. She had no memory of her walk from the library to the hostel, this was how engrossed she was in the book. Back in her room, her roommate tried to engage her in a conversation but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the book. She kept on reading, way into the wee hours of the night. She finished the book the following morning and once she was done, she walked to the balcony still clutching the book, and climbing onto the balustrade, she jumped from the four-storey building unto her death. Her roommate who had been sleeping soundly was awoken by the sound of people muttering outside, and when she went outside and downstairs to see what the commotion was all about she saw Nkechi’s body sprawled on the pavement, bleeding from a cracked skull, her arms, and legs broken in several places. Other students gathered around the body, mumbling, snapping their fingers and heaving their shoulders up and down. One of them, a girl named Rita, walked closer to Nkechi’s body and picked up the book. Rita had not known Nkechi well but she had been baffled by Nkechi’s sudden death nonetheless, as were the others. It was in an attempt to understand Nkechi’s death that Rita opened the book and began reading. She read the book throughout the day and in the evening when she was done, she picked up her kitchen knife and stabbed herself in the neck. When Rita’s roommate Ada came back from lectures, she found Rita’s body at the center of the room lying in a pool of blood, one hand clutching the knife with which she had stabbed herself, the other hand clutching the book. After the grief over the death of her roommate, on a cold windy night, Ada started reading the book, and in the morning when she was done, she tied a rope around the ceiling fan and hanged herself.

After the deaths of these three girls, the rumor of the dangerous book became more than a rumor, it took on a certain kind of potency. People began to believe that there really was a book whose readers killed themselves in various ways after reading it. This book was nameless, it’s author anonymous, it’s content unknown. The ones who had read it and who could’ve spoken about what it contains were all dead. Politicians ran for office on the promise that they would keep the public safe from the deadly effects of this book. Conspiracy theorists opined that the existence of the book was a hoax, a ploy orchestrated by the powerful to take advantage of the powerless. On the news, the broadcaster spoke of this nameless book with the ability to kill its’ reader. People from different walks of life were invited on talk shows to ruminate on the book. Doctors, lawyers, philosophers, all offered their opinions.

‘The book is a disease, a contagion.’ The doctor said.

‘The reading of this book should be made illegal.’ The lawyer said.

‘The book is a labyrinth and the labyrinth is a book.’ The philosopher said.

All these people agreed though that everyone should steer clear of this book. But then because the masses didn’t know the name of this book or the content or the name of the author, they didn’t know what exactly they should be steering clear of. Everyone was told not to read nameless books or books written by anonymous authors.  But there were thousands of nameless books written anonymously. Were they supposed to steer clear of all those books?  Some did stay away from books without names, but because this was the Age of Reading, most people couldn’t help themselves. They read nameless books written anonymously, and in the process encountered the book. And more deaths ensued.

A housewife named Hadiza after reading a romance novel picked up a nameless book that her husband purchased the previous day and started reading it without knowing that she was reading the book. When she finished, she climbed into her bath-tub turned on the faucet and drowned herself. Her eight-year-old daughter came back from school only to find Mommy’s lifeless body in the bathroom holding the book that had by then been water-soaked in her right hand. Femi, a lawyer who had defended several criminals and gotten them off, read the book and when he finished, he stuck his hand in a socket and electrocuted himself. His paralegal found him lying on the floor of his office his right hand, the one he had jammed into the socket, was charred, his eyes up-rolled as though he had suffered a seizure, his left hand clutching the book. Chizoba, a medical doctor well-known for how swiftly he made a diagnosis, poisoned himself with cyanide after reading the book. His housekeeper found him slouched in a chair in his study, foam and spit dribbling down his chin.  All these people died with a copy of the book in their hands.

As the death toll increased, the government announced that all nameless books written Anonymously were to be burned or otherwise expunged. This was called Decree 23. Not long after this decree was announced, it became known that some people were hiding the book under a different cover. No one knew exactly who these perpetrators were but the primary objective of The Subversives, as they were called, was the distribution of books by all means even if it led to the death of the reader. So The Subversives hid the book under covers of other books and quickly distributed the book under this guise so that when people opened a certain named book what they saw and read instead was the dangerous book that would eventually drive them to kill themselves. It was for this reason, it was because of the trickery of The Subversives, that the government then announced that all books, nameless or otherwise, were to be burned or otherwise expunged. Great tomes of literature and mediocre works by emerging authors were all fed to the flames. Biographies, memoirs, novels of all genre, history books, philosophy books, books of poetry, medical books, law books, psychology books,  they were all burned. Book burning became a civic duty. Authors came to terms with the uselessness of writing in a world where people didn’t read, a world where people were warned of the dangers of reading. Anyone seen with a book in his or her possession was immediately arrested, the book in the person’s possession confiscated.

This was how The Age of Ignorance was ushered in. The inception of this age was marked by changes in people’s attitudes, as most often happens in landmark moments of history. The denizens, very much aware of the onslaught of a new zeitgeist, made several modifications to their lives. Romance novel aficionados memorized the most heart-wrenching love stories and then burned those novels. History buffs memorized works of history and then burned those books. Believers memorized words of scriptures before burning their books of faith. Doctors crammed numerous ways of treating numerous diseases before burning all medical textbooks. Lawyers, already given to memorizing statutes and decrees, had less difficulty committing to their minds tons and tons of legal proceedings and precedents before burning all law text-books. Philosophers memorized all works of philosophy before burning those books. All that was written was lost, all knowledge was passed over in words and imbued in memory. But because the human memory is faulty, this method of retaining knowledge quickly devolved, spiraling into disaster. Over time doctors began to forget certain cures to certain diseases, and because they had no medical text-book to consult, patients died as a result. Defendants were easily carted off to prison because lawyers soon began to forget the most efficient ways to defend their clients. Philosophers who from time immemorial had never agreed on anything among themselves, even disagreed more as they began to forget the words of the great sages of old. Some of these philosophers argued that the meaning of the world could be gleaned from its inner symmetry, others argued that the meaning of the world was that it had no meaning, and none of these philosophers could quote the works of the great sages of old to support their theory, all knowledge of theosophy and absurdism having been eroded away from their minds. Even the believers who had so ardently memorized their scriptures began to forget, and this led to some devious people adding words to the scriptures, words it hadn’t contained before, leading to much confusion. But more than anything else, The Age of Ignorance brought about the resurgence of bigotry and the pervasiveness of injustice. Because books and reading had enabled people to understand one another, the absence of books and the prohibition of reading had made dissent and discord to fester in the hearts of the people. Straight people turned against gay people, sometimes bashing them to death. Patriarchy was upheld and women suffered, sometimes being beaten to death by their abusive husbands. The wealthy became even less empathetic towards the plight of the poor, going so far as to exploit them of the little pennies they had left. Injustices prevailed, and so did carnage. The world became a place where the wailing of the wounded was all that could be heard.

Published inFictionShort Stories

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