Fiction: Welcome to the future, where people read no more.
BY MIKE GELPRIN
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOMER HANUKA
Andrey Petrovich had given up all hope when the videophone rang.
“Hello, I saw your ad. You give private literature lessons?”
Andrey Petrovich peered at the man on the screen. He was about thirty, with an open smile and serious eyes, dressed in a suit and tie. Andrey Petrovich’s heart skipped a beat. Posting the ad on the Net had become but a hapless habit. In the past ten years he had received six responses. Three callers had dialed the wrong number, two others were old-fashioned insurance salesmen who still made phone calls, and the last one had confused literature with legislature.
“Y-yes, I d-do,” Andrey Petrovich stuttered anxiously. “In my apartment. You are interested in literature?”
“I am,” the man nodded from the screen, and introduced himself. “My name is Maksim. How much do you charge?”
Andrey Petrovich almost blurted, “it’s free,” but caught himself. “Rates are per hour. And negotiable.” He took a deep breath. “When would you like to start?”
“Well, I… you see,” Maksim started.
“First lesson is free,” Andrey Petrovich said quickly. “If you don’t like it, there’s no obligation.”
“Let’s start tomorrow then,” Maksim said definitively. “Are you free at ten in the morning? I drop the kids off at school by nine, and then I’m good until two.”
“I’m free,” Andrey Petrovich said happily. “Here’s my address. Got a pen?”
“I’ll remember it,” Maksim assured him. “Go ahead.”
Andrey Petrovich couldn’t sleep that night. Pacing from wall to wall in his tiny room, nearly a closet, he tried to tame his shaking hands and jumbled thoughts. For the past twelve years, he had been living on a meager subsistence, ever since the day he was fired. He had given up all hope of teaching.
“Your specialty is too narrow,” the principal of The Arts and Humanities Academy for the Gifted and Talented had told him during their last conversation. “You are an excellent pedagogue, but your subject has outlived itself. Children don’t study it anymore. Why don’t you retrain, take on something modern like virtual ethics or robotic torts legal code? Or as a last resort, the history of cinematography. It’s on its way out too, but it would carry you to retirement. The Academy would reimburse you for some of the cost. What do you say?”
Andrey Petrovich declined the offer, which he regretted later. There were no jobs in literature and philology, and former teachers were moving into other disciplines, grasping at any conceivable straws. For the first two years, he diligently went through liberal arts colleges and conservatories, but departments of humanities were disappearing and libraries were closing. When all proved fruitless, he tried to retrain, despite his aversion to the dry modern disciplines. When his wife left, he gave up.
As his savings dwindled, Andrey Petrovich spiraled into poverty. First, he sold his aircar, old yet still in good shape. Then he let go of the antique tea set, his mother’s memento. Furniture and clothes followed. And once he was left with nothing in his sad bachelor pad, it was the books’ turn. The real books—the old-fashioned, leather-bound tomes with original illustrations, still smelling of ink, paper, and glue. Collectors paid top price for the rare old volumes, so Leo Tolstoy brought food to his table for almost a month. Fyodor Dostoevsky lasted for two weeks. Ivan Bunin sufficed for about ten days. Every time Andrey Petrovich thought about his lost treasures, he felt like throwing up.
Literature died because it didn’t fit into the evolutionary progress. But it used to carry the wisdom of mankind to the next generation. It used to nourish souls and build spirits.
Finally, he was left with a few dozen of his absolutely favorite books, which he couldn’t sell even if faced with starving to death. Hemingway, Balzac, Zola, Pasternak and a few other authors huddled together on his four remaining shelves, and every day Andrey Petrovich lovingly dusted them.
“If the lessons work, I may be able to buy back Tolstoy,” he mumbled to himself, shuffling from wall to wall, anxiously waiting for the morning. “Or maybe Murakami. Or should I do Amado first?”
Suddenly, a realization struck him. It didn’t matter whether he could reclaim his books. What mattered was that he could pass on his knowledge of the long forgotten art: the beauty of the language, the flow of the story, the insights of its authors. He could impart, transfer, and transform…