Book Shoppers Anonymous: “Time Enough at Last”

Something has been happening in my apartment. I have a new roommate. Boy, do I get rankled all the time for want of some alone time. It’s not just the apartment, though. It’s this entire city, it’s the world. He’s just stepped out, and now I have some time to listen to my own thoughts, to read, to write, to walk around the apartment naked. Most of all, though, I tell myself that if only I had more time to myself in the apartment, that I’d read more.

For those of you who know me, I play a lot of video games, and I may have even mentioned that up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t been reading much. So for those of you reading this, you might know, too, that by me saying that I’d read more if only I had more space and more time, is really just me rationalizing my own selfishness.

If we travel back in time to this summer when I wrote my post about detachment, Buddhism, and book-buying, I used that oh-so-iconic figure of Henry Bemis, the eccentric banker from a famous episode of The Twilight ZoneI’ve been watching the show recently from the very first episode, and my god, that show is dark, intense, and ahead of its (yes, here’s that word again) time.

Henry Bemis, as played by Burgess Meredith

In the episode “Time Enough at Last”, our tragic bespectacled hero Henry Bemis is a timid and eccentric bank teller and husband. He’s nearsighted and loves to read books. All Henry wants to do is read books and talk about books, but the real world represented by his wife, his job, and his boss, keep intruding.

The president of the bank tells him, “You, Mr Bemis, are a reader. A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going down to the vault during your lunch hour. You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading, or you’ll find yourself outdoors reading on a park bench from morning until night from want of a job.” Bemis interrupts the president, to which the president replies, “Make it quick and get back to your cage.” Imagine this president in the age of the internet. Talk about the distraction and productivity killer to end all.

His wife is no better, talking down to him and his silly books, a lot like how people used to pester me about video games. She even takes a pencil to his book and vandalizes them. Henry Bemis is crushed. Even after Bemis tells the president how his wife will never let him read, driving him to desperate acts of reading the labels on the ketchup bottle, the president commends Bemis’s wife as a sound woman.

They all just seem like a bunch of meanies, at least to my roommate and his girlfriend.

So much of the episode sets up the viewer to sympathize with Bemis. This shy, timid, gentle man is just being bullied and misunderstood by the world. It’s certainly difficult for an informed and literate New Yorker like myself to understand how so much of Bemis’s world can be against books. It’s even more surprising just how anti-intellectual the world can be even now in the heyday of the internet and quick-and-easy access to knowledge. There’s Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia (which actually gave presented the idea of anti-intellectualism in this episode).

In my liberal time and place, education and being informed are often so highly regarded. I take it for granted just how much we value books. And that’s exactly what the story is trying to teach us, right? The world is just a bunch of dummies, and Bemis is the true hero because he reads books and is educated and understands the human condition and blah blah blah.

Then the H-bomb goes off as Bemis reads from the protected shell of a bank vault. He’s suddenly left alone. His pocket watch shatters. There’s no one to bother him. He has plenty of food, well, crackers, but there’s no one to bother him. No one. Soon enough he goes mad, finds a gun with which he’s going to kill himself. “Surely I’ll be forgiven…”

Then he sees the sign for the Public Library and approaches his version of Heaven.

“Collected Works of Dickens. Collected Works of Bernard Shaw. Poems by Browning, Shelley, Keats! Great Dramas of the World! Books, books, books. All the books I’ll need, all the books I’ll ever want!” No wonder this video was first shown to me in a high school English class.

Still, if this episode is a champion of intellectualism, then why is Bemis “punished” at the end of the episode? He embraces a huge clock when he expounds on having all “the time I’ll need. All the time I’ll want. There’s time enough at last.” And yes, secretly there’s a part of me that wishes for an apocalypse where I’m secretly vaulted up in the cellar of The Strand book store with enough crackers and salami to keep me alive.

And even though I’d be able to read all the Dostoevsky I wanted, and enough time to read The Fermata over and over again, surely I wouldn’t be able to make love to any of these books. I couldn’t discuss them with anyone, and let’s not forget that Bemis wants to discuss books with others. It’s not that he’s a recluse. He wants to

But with no markers of time, no people, no eyeglasses, no life to which our books and knowledge can refer to, it’s all dead anyways. As admirable as Bemis’s intellectualism is, he ultimately falls prey to his own desires. There’s a limit to it all.

What would Werner Herzog have to say about this, though? When he said that you can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t read, bemoaning a culture that only reads magazines and blog posts (like this one), did he see the blind spots of his own obsession with the written word? And what do we make then of this limitation of knowledge when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows touted for being authentic and unflinching, tells us that we still need to be reading books because they do something television doesn’t? Or even when Buddhists must practice detachment from books and knowledge?

Was Bemis punished? Was it the world that was at fault? Or is this just an example of the amorality of our universe and the tragic nature of humanity? Even books can’t save us in the end, not even an e-book. But if books can’t save us, neither will all of our stories. When the big one hits, no matter how we view these stories as little time capsules, capturing history and slices of life, they’ll never be a substitute for living itself, even if that reality is a harsh wife and a demanding boss.

Is it really that simple, though? That cut-and-dry? Why shouldn’t we get our own little slice of paradise? As we’ve all most of us have learned, life isn’t fair. And as The Twilight Zone, books, and the events of the world have taught us all (oh-so-recently) we often live in a confusing, alien, and amoral world that all the books and knowledge could possibly fix or alleviate.

But I’d like to think it might help…

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