Here’s a piece of flash fiction about someone who takes the “reading life” to the next level. It turned out a little long (779 words) and has an estimated reading time of about 3 minutes. Let me know what you think!
I saw him every time I came to the Book Trader, the used book store in a historic section of the city. I never knew where I’d spot him amid the stacks of books. Sometimes, he’d be upstairs reading and drinking tea on one of the old couches by the History section. Or he’d be digging through a pile of newly traded books, looking for what I didn’t know.
Did he work here? I couldn’t be sure. Either way, he was always there when I was. A fixture, a mainstay of the store, as much as the store’s cat. He had a wispy gray beard down to his solar plexus, and he always wore a black beanie cap, no matter the weather, that covered strands of gray hair.
I decided one day to finally approach him.
It was a lame question, but all I could think of.
The question startled him; he was so entranced by the book he was reading in the Classics section that he wasn’t ready for conversation. He was reading a very old, tattered copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
“A-hem.” He cleared his throat like he hadn’t spoken in quite some time. “Yes, yes, always reading. This here – The Brothers Karamazov – one of my favorites. I’d say this is the fifteenth time I’ve been through it. Yes, precisely fifteenth.”
“Wow! That’s impressive. It’s a long book.”
He stared at me quizzically. “Long? Well. This translation here is 825 pages, exactly. Not so long, really. I’ve read it all in a day.”
“Whoa! You’re a speed reader?”
He looked at me again as if he didn’t understand the question. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at me for a few moments. There was something about his eyes that seemed ancient. They were a mix of crystal blue and steel-gray under furry graying eyebrows. Somehow, the man seemed ageless to me.
“What … what’s a speed reader?”
“Oh, you know. Someone who reads very fast.”
He closed the book now, pondered what I said. “Yes. Well, I suppose you can say that I am then. I’ve never heard of this term.”
After a while, I got him to open up a bit, though our conversation was awkward at first. He said his name was Milton, like John Milton, his favorite of all the English poets. He told me he was originally from Philadelphia but had traveled the world and visited bookstores all over. Now, in his advanced age, he preferred to spend all his time at the Book Trader here in Philly, where he estimated he read every entire book in the store.
As he talked about himself, I had several unanswered questions. Did he, in fact, work here? Why was he always here? Just how old was he? He mentioned being a soldier in World War I, but that couldn’t be possible. Every WWI veteran has long since been dead.
“So, I presume you work here?” I was dying to know.
“But you’re always here. Do you just come every day?”
“I live here.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Yes, I live here – always here, always reading—no need for sleep. The owners, they lock up at night, I stay and read. It’s a nice life. No one bothers me; the owners feed me. It’s a reading life.”
It didn’t make sense. Why would they let him live there? How did he shower? Where were his belongings? I was utterly confused.
“Let’s go get lunch across the street. Talk about books,” I suggested.
“No, can’t do that. I’m unable to leave.”
“No need to leave. The outside world? It’s a scary place. I stay right here, in the store, with my books. That’s all I need.”
I tried my hardest to convince him to come to lunch, but he wouldn’t budge. Milton, the ageless reader, the man who lived in the bookstore, never left the store. I had the feeling he’d been here since the day it opened.
Over the years, I’d stop by the store and see him and chat. And he was always there, always reading. I never convinced him to leave for lunch and coffee, and eventually, I stopped asking.
When the store closed a few years later, I wondered what happened to Milton. The books were gone, so maybe he moved on. I like to imagine he found a new bookstore and set up camp there. I never saw him again, but I think of him often, especially when someone mentions The Brothers Karamazov. Milton was the most dedicated reader I’ve ever known.