But the books were the things that fascinated me. They not only brimmed the shelves but filled the bathtub which I could glimpse through a half-open door to one side. There was no kitchen. If there had been, the icebox would have been filled, no doubt, with copies of Peary at the North Pole or Byrd Alone in Antarctica. A. L. Shrank, it was obvious, bathed in the sea, like many others here, and had his banquets at Herman’s Hot-dogs, down the way.

But it was not so much the presence of nine hundred or a thousand books, as it was their titles, their subjects, their incredible dark and doomed and awful names.

On the high, always midnight shelves stood Thomas Hardy in all his gloom next to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which leaned on dread Nietzsche and hopeless Schopenhauer cheek by jowl with The Anatomy of Melancholy, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Freud, the tragedies of Shakespeare (no comedies visible), the Marquis de Sade, Thomas De Quincey, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Spengler’s Decline of the West . . . and on and on. . . .

Eugene O’Neill was there. Oscar Wilde, but only his sad prison essay, none of his lilac fluff or gentian laughs. Genghis Khan and Mussolini leaned on each other. Books with titles like Suicide As an Answer or The Dark Night of Hamlet or Lemmings to the Sea were on the high shelf in snows. On the floor lay World War Two and Krakatoa, the Explosion Heard Round the World, along with India the Hungry and The Red Sun Rises.

If you run your eye and mind along books like that, and run your stare along again, disbelieving, there is only one thing you can do. Like a bad film version of Mourning Becomes Electra, where one suicide follows another and murder tops murder, and incest incites incest, and blackmail supersedes poisoned apples and people fall down stairs or step on strychnine tacks, you finally snort, toss back your head, and . . .


“What’s so funny?” said someone behind me.

I turned.

“I said, what’s so funny?”

He stood with his thin pale face about six inches from the tip of my nose.

The man who slept on that analysis couch.

The man who owned all those end-of-the-world books.


“Well?” he said.

“Your library!” I stammered.

A. L. Shrank glared, waiting.

Luckily I sneezed, which erased my laugh and let me cover my confusion with a Kleenex.

“Forgive me, forgive,” I said. “I own exactly fourteen books. It’s not often you see the New York Public Library imported to Venice pier.”

The flames went out in A. L. Shrank’s tiny, bright-yellow fox eyes. His wire-thin shoulders sank. His tiny fists opened up. My praise caused him to glance through his own window like a stranger and gape.

“Why,” he murmured, amazed, “yes, they’re all mine.”

I stood looking down at a man no taller than five-one or five-two, maybe less without his shoes. I had a terrible urge to check to see if he wore three-inch heels, but kept my eyes level with the top of his head. He was not even aware of my inspection, so proud was he of the proliferation of literary beasts that infested his dark shelves.

“I have five thousand nine hundred and ten books,” he announced.

“You sure it’s not five thousand nine hundred and eleven?”

He very carefully looked only in at his library and said, in a cold voice, “Why are you laughing?”

“The titles…”

“The titles?” He leaned closer to the window to search the shelves for some bright traitor among all those assassin books.

“Well,” I said, lamely, “aren’t there any summers, good weather, fair winds, in your library? Don’t you own any glad books, happy finds like Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town? The Sun Is My Undoing? In the Good Old Summertime? June Laughter?”

“No!” Shrank stood on tiptoe to say this, then caught himself and sank down. “No…”

“How about Peacock’s Headlong Hall, or Huck Finn, Three Men in a Boat, How Green Was My Father? Pickwick Papers? Robert Benchley? James Thurber? S. J. Perelman…”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray