Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Opton’

The age I turned last week is a big huge number I never thought I’d make it to, because who can imagine such a crazy number? Counting much past twenty, I’m lost. Anyway, it’s an old enough age that there are now lots of books I’ve read two or three times, books I know I loved or at least liked a lot when I read them, that I now barely remember any details about. I only know I still have vestigial shreds of affection for them kicking about like Kleenex in the vast empty parking lot of my soul. So I didn’t get much help today from my higher faculties when I set out to work on a bit of research. I knew I wanted to find a certain passage in a Stanislaw Lem novel for this thing I’m working on, but of course I couldn’t remember which passage in which novel. I mean, I only knew it was something about futuristic books I wanted to quote to gussy up a presentation. But all I could do to find it was to run around and snatch at windblown tissues.

In the non-metaphorical world, this meant I went to the shelf and blindly grabbed a title from the middle of the Lem collection and looked inside, thinking I would be doing this for the next few hours. The first thing that happened was, a bunch of pictures tumbled out, old snapshots of Papago Park that had that pinkish look photos get from being under fluorescent lights too much. Images last out in the air when I had them up on the bulletin board above my desk at my old job. Meaning I must’ve had this book at my desk, which is weird because on my old job there wasn’t ever any free time, especially not for reading. Even lunch hours were for work, as I guess is generally the custom now. All I can figure is, I must’ve carried this Lem book around with me as a reminder of where I was supposed to be instead of in a cubicle. Must’ve worked, because here we are.

Anyhow, the next thing that happened was, the book sort of naturally fell open to the exact page I needed, saving me a bunch of time that I have now just unsaved by writing such a long and arguably unnecessary preface. Still, it was a surprising and exciting moment in this the first week of my elderhood, especially as I’d thought I was officially well past the point where such moments were likely to happen anymore. But, enough of all of that. Here’s the passage, which is Barbara Marszal’s and Frank Simpson’s translation of the beginning of Chapter 3 of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, Return from the Stars:

“I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century . . . No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in the hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it.”

I hope the rest of the research turns out to be as easy to do as that. Although there are days I suppose when the difficult research is the way more fun kind.

First, though, I’m taking a break to go back to rummaging around in the junk drawers of my old sketchbooks, to see if there are any drawings worth someday redrawing and posting. “If” and “someday” being the important words here.

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