Following some disaster, only one man is left on earth. Faced with the prospect of a life alone, he finds a pistol and thinks about suicide. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, he stumbles across a huge library, with enough to keep him occupied – even happy – for years. He reaches for a book… and his glasses shatter on the floor.
This is the final scene of an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, an old U.S. sci-fi show. The episode itself, made in the 60s, is about nuclear war as much as solitude and literature. But it is the final scene that people remember.
The clip’s black humour lies in the pathetic contrast between the ideal future the ‘Last Man on Earth’ thinks he has stumbled on – books, endless books, indefinitely – and the place where he ends up, scrabbling around on the floor for his broken spectacles. Our instinct is to read the thing as vaguely tragic. But if we want to empathize with Bevis, then I think we have to buy into his conception of literature as well. I take this to be something like: books are a private pleasure, worlds into which we can disappear by ourselves – potentially forever. They are also a consumable: Bevis begins stacking up books into reading piles for every month of the empty future.
In the episode, Bevis is presented as a misanthrope who prefers books to people. The broken glasses are a form of punishment. Bevis misunderstands reading, too. Two things strike me as particularly important in this respect. The first is obvious: when we read, we become part of something bigger than us, a chain of experience. We might at some point want to intervene in this chain directly, by talking to a friend about an idea, or writing something ourselves. Or not. What matters is the chain is there in the background, humming away quietly. This all ends when society does. The second thing may be more controversial. One of the underrated pleasures of reading is the bit when a piece ends – the moment you surface. (In fact, the same could be said for any kind of mental activity.) If Bevis had been left to read, books would have become his world and the illusion would never have ended. Knowing this, who would want to read at all?
There is something about blogging which reminds me of Bevis, alone at the end of the world, with ‘time enough at last’ to read but, in reality, no time at all. That said, blogs are places where there is time to write about what you want, in a form in which you want to write. In the spirit of Bevis piling up his books for the future, I will also link to things that I have written for other places.