Last week, a friend of mine who makes and sells books tweeted a short quote in the midst of a longer conversation: "The appetite for light is ancient." I didn't know the reference, so I searched Google Books and found a single result: William S. Wilson's short story "Desire," which begins like this:
Turning and climbing, the double helix evolved to an operation which had always existed as a possibility for mankind, the eating of light. The appetite for light was ancient. Light had been eaten metaphorically in ritual transubstantiations. Poets had declared that to be is to be a variable of light, that this peach, and even this persimmon, is light.
I read the whole story via G-Books preview, wandered around my apartment in a daze for a few minutes, and then read it twice more. It's the kind of perfectly tuned artifact you're lucky to encounter a few times a year, and a pure example of genuinely elegant classic science fiction.
Its central image probably resonates so hard in my brain because of my childhood obsession with the glorious weird interlude in C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when the child protagonists sail to edge of the world and discover that the ocean water has turned sweet and luminous, a healing sea of drinkable light. (I was sick a lot as a kid and read that chapter over and over.)
Wilson, though, I'd never read before. "Desire," which was first published in 1975, lives in Wilson's collection, Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka, which is even now winging its way to my local bookshop via special order.
Google Books is many things, including a source of anxiety to many friends and colleagues who write books for a living. For readers, though -- at least for now -- it's a world-sized library catalog turned inside out, with books' contents replacing the separate index as a medium for discovery. This internet we're making out of web pages and digital databases is made vastly richer by a live connection to our print-based past.
There's another line in the story that's been zipping around my brain like a rocketship since I read it: "The appetite for actual light was at first appeased by symbols." It's a beautiful sentence, but what matters most is that that subtle little "at first"—and everything it implies about what's going to happen next.
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