The Complete Stultification Reader by Stephen Brady

It was the big grey book that first gave her the idea.

Maura had been working part-time in Paragraphs Bookstore for just over a month. She was deep into first year Drama Studies, and she adored the place. The long sentinel stacks of volumes, the heady musk of the Second Hand section, the afternoon sunlight that filtered weakly through the dust-shrouded windows, the eccentrics who came in every day to wander among the displays. She loved it all.

After two weeks, Maura had been put on the Orders desk. There she had been shown the ropes by Donal. Donal was a balding, heavyset man who wore a permanent air of existential disappointment. Everything he said, even the announcement he was going on his break, was laden with doom. He wore T shirts that bore humorous slogans, but to Maura the fact that Donal was wearing them extracted any humour that might have been inherent in the words.

One afternoon she was going through the new orders when she spotted something odd.

“Donal…?”

He sighed. “Yeah?”

“There’s a typo here.”

“A typo?”

“Yes, look. Right here.”

“Where?”

“It says this customer’s name is Stanley Stanley.”

He eyed her wearily. “That’s his name.”

“We have a customer called Stanley Stanley?”

“Yeah. He’s a regular.” Donal glanced around, and indicated a book on the table behind her. “That’s for him. Check it, if you want.”

Maura was curious to know what kind of book a customer named Stanley Stanley might have ordered. She leaned over to inspect it.

It was a whopper, one of the biggest books she’d ever seen. The cover was a plain dull grey, like the hull of a submarine. Its title:

“A Comprehensive History Of The… File Index Card?”

Maura was nonplussed, for three reasons. First, that the book should exist. Second, that it was so enormous. And thirdly, that anyone, even someone called Stanley Stanley, should have ordered it. And according to the docket, it hadn’t been cheap.

“Excuse me…?”

A customer was standing at the desk. A squat young man with bad skin and sort of pudding-bowl haircut. He was wearing a beige sweater stained with what looked like egg yolk.

She was visited by a flash of intuition.

“Are you Mr Stanley?”

“Yuh! I believe yous have a book for me?”

“Yes. Just a moment…”

Maura struggled to lift the immense tome. By God, it weighed a ton! She passed it across and he took it with both hands. He gazed at the grey cover, face aglow.

“Tenth edition! Complete glossary and footnotes. Can’t wait to get stuck into this baby!” And with that, Stanley Stanley turned and shuffled away, the giant book clasped lovingly to his bosom.

Maura watched him go, chewing her lip. Something was happening here that she could not quite grasp. And she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

That afternoon, she went back through the recent orders list to see what other titles the singular Mr Stanley had requested. The results of her search only served to deepen the mystery.

Apart from the grimoire on the file index card, Stan Stanley had also ordered:

The Double-Plate Telescope Lens: In Theory and Practice

Paint Classifications: The Definitive Guide

1,001 Carpet Samples

The Evolution of the Bevel-Edged Chisel (Incorporating the Belgian Short-Handle Controversy)

Reading this list engendered in Maura a feeling for which she had no name. To imagine those volumes, what they must have looked like, felt like in the hand, and above all, what the experience of reading them must have been like, made her feel subtly oppressed. A crushing, breathless sensation, such as she had felt once in a stalled elevator in Chicago, began to take hold of her. She wasn’t especially claustrophobic, but imagining a bookshelf somewhere groaning under the weight of such works, and others of their ilk, awoke in her the symptoms a low-grade panic attack.

When Donal returned, she said: “Hey. You know that guy…”

“What guy?”

“Stanley Stanley.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Has he been getting books here long?”

Donal pondered. “Few years, anyway.”

“How often does he come in?”

“Every week. Clockwork.”

“Well, it’s just…”

“What…?”

“I’ve been looking at the back orders. And I just can’t believe anybody reads books like that.”

“Well, he does. Simon, who used to do the orders? He told me that one time Stan Stanley was looking for something on the history of the shoelace. He said he wanted it ‘as detailed as possible.'” He nodded sagely. “Make of that what you will.”

“But..!” She was becoming agitated. Like in rehearsals, when she didn’t have the lines. “Why does he read that stuff?”

“Beats me.” Donal sat, and drew out his phone. “Who cares?”

“I do!”

“Well why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will…”

The following Monday, Stan Stanley’s next order was emailed in. Donal printed it off and handed it to Maura.

“Early Non-Patterned Ceramics of the Upper Volga: The Complete Catalogue of the Pottery Department at the University of Vorbinsk. Non-Illustrated Edition.”

“There now,” he announced. “He’s consistent, I’ll give him that.”

“Let me get it,” said Maura. “I’ll give it to him. And I’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Whatever.”

She found the book, at a specialist academic press in Poland. It was eye-wateringly expensive. And when it arrived, she was no longer surprised at its size or heft. She carefully wrote the customer’s name on the sticker, and kept the giant volume close at hand. All week she worked diligently, buzzing through the store, mop of curls held back by a man’s silk tie. She even skipped lectures, to ensure she didn’t miss him. And her eyes kept returning to the plain, shrink-wrapped doorstop on the desk, which held the key to the mystery.

When Friday came, her anticipation had reached fever pitch. She swapped shelving duties with Donal, so she could stay on the desk. As the time ticked by she bobbed and boogied, craning for a view of the entrance. And finally, just before lunchtime, he appeared.

Maura moved to the counter, dragging the book into position. Stanley Stanley trundled over, and favoured her with a crooked grin.

“Eh, hello. I ordered-”

“Yes, Mr Stanley. I have it here.” She pushed the massive tome across the counter.

“Great!” His eyes shone. “I been lookin forward to this one, so I have. Can’t wait ta dive in!” He put his stubby fingers on the book, but Maura held it firm.

“Mr Stanley. I wondered if I could ask you something?”

“Eh… whut?”

“Well, I’ve been doing the orders for a while now, and I’ve noticed that all the books you order are of a certain… type?”

“Yuh?”

“And I wondered if I could ask you…”

“Whut?”

“… do you not find all these books a bit… you know…”

“A bit whut?”

“Boring.”

He grinned, revealing rows of crooked yellow tombstones. “Boring?”

“Yes, boring.”

He hooted. “Ooooh, yuh! They’re boring, alright! Stul-ti-fy-ing! By Jeez, they’re dull!” His grin vanished. “‘Cept there was one. A history of the Mid-Napoleonic Shoe Buckle. I hadta stop readin that one. It was racy.”

As he spoke, he was trying to draw the book towards him. But Maura wasn’t letting go. “Then why do you read them?”

“Why…?”

“Yes. I don’t mean to be, like, intrusive. But I’d really like to know.”

He leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. She had to move closer to hear, and endure the twin trials of breath and body odour.

“Time.”

“… Did you say ‘time’?”

“Yeah.” He nodded confidentially. “Time is elastic, so it is. When ye’re entertained, time speeds up. When ye’re bored, time slows down. Ye know?”

“That’s not real, though. That’s just, like, perception.”

“I know that,” he said equably. “But the perception of time is totally elastic. So I spent last week readin’ that book about the file index card. An’ that week felt like a year, believe me. I read that book all day, every day. An’ it was like a year passed, but I didn’t age. Y’see? Einstein was wrong, an’ HG Wells. It’s nothin’ to do wi’ physics. Boredom is time travel!” His voice had risen to a zealous pitch, and people were looking.

“So that’s why you read those books?”

“Yuh! I get the biggest, dullest books I can find, an’ I read them one after another. All day every day. It’s great, so it is. By the time I die, I’ll feel like I lived for a thousand years!”

Maura released the book. Her hand left ghostly sweat-marks on the plastic. Stanley Stanley drew the non-illustrated ceramics catalogue to him and folded it in the protective embrace with which she was by now familiar.

“Be back next week,” he chirped. “I’ve me eye on somethin’ about drains. In the meantime, try it yerself!”

And off he went.

Maura stood there a while, staring out the window. She felt none the wiser for that exchange. Or perhaps she did, and she simply didn’t want to formulate it.

On the street the lunchtime rush had started. People darted ceaselessly back and forth.  Almost all were buried in their phones.

She thought about her own phone, nestled in her handbag. No doubt full of angry messages from college. But that wasn’t what concerned her. She was thinking about what Stanley Stanley had said. And about all the times she’d glanced up from the screen, to discover that an hour of her life had passed.

“Hey.” It was Donal. He’d been lounging at the end of the counter, and had no doubt caught the whole exchange. “Listen. We just got a new one in. Lesser-known garden implements of pre-Revolutionary France.” A strange, sad smile creased the hangdog features. “I’ll go and get it for you, if you like.”

1 Comment

  1. Shea

    Very good story Stephen, although I was concerned that you really didn’t give credit to the authors that wrote the books mentioned.
    Possibly you might write a series of biographies. maybe eight or ten volumes, to do justice.
    You might never die! Immortality awaits.

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