I vividly recall the day I sat reading a book nearly twenty-five years ago and my literature professor scurried by, eyes fixed before him in an overly anxious resolve not to take any notice of his surroundings lest someone greet him or worse, engage him in friendly conversation. His hand clutched several books tightly and as he hurried past I caught the words printed on the back of his black T-shirt: ‘SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME.’
“The stammering fool,” I thought—ok, a little harshly. But he epitomized something I couldn’t put my finger on back then. My stay back in school lasted little more than a couple of months; in that short time I came to the conclusion whatever learning I was after wasn’t there. Now, so many years later—so many books later—that opinion hasn’t changed a bit.
I mean, why feel an obligation, a compulsion, to read a certain canonical list of books, say fifty or a hundred long, just to attain to the largely misunderstood and overrated status of being ‘well read’ anyways? And what’s more, exactly what does it mean to be ‘well read’? Conversant in the classics? At home in a literary conversation? The envy of your local book club? Such things occupied my thoughts more than they should have a long time ago.
One night, just around sundown, I was wandering the streets of an unfamiliar City. Why I had moved there I cannot recall. Why I did anything back then I can only now recount, having the benefit of time… and something else… a sort of inner perspective, I suppose.
Anyway, as I strode the crowded streets a playbill caught my eye. ‘The Last School’ it announced, and said something more about the past, present, and future. At the bottom was ‘Theatre One’ and a time. Having passed the place earlier and having nothing else in particular to do I made my way over.
As I took my seat the lights went down and the curtain went up to reveal a man standing in front of an ancient looking lectern. He was athletically built and of indeterminate age and with a welcoming smile he surveyed the audience, which consisted of one other man besides myself. Behind him in a spacious semi circle were large heavy looking bookshelves crammed with volumes. In front of these were statues, sculpture, and painting, standing on the floor and mounted on small tables, plus an assortment of scientific instruments such as telescopes and microscopes and crazy medieval looking retorts and alembics.
The man stood silent, allowing the two of us time to take in the scene. Then he spoke, and this is what he said:
“Aah, welcome,” he began, looking deeply into our eyes. “I see we have a better turnout than I expected. That’s good.”
“What do you say we get going here? For time is of the very essence!”
“The Last School begins this very instant, and how long it will take is entirely up to you. Courses? You are free to devise your own, using whatever materials and syllabuses you deem appropriate. There are no classrooms—this hall has only been rented for the day—and no teachers. And of course it goes without saying that there will be no one to grade anything you do. Any questions?”
The other fella raised his hand. The man at the podium looked at him.
“Uhh,” my fellow student said, “how do we know when and if we’ve passed?”
The man at the podium looked down.
“You will simply know,” he said.
And with that the curtain fell, the lights went up, and the doors to the street outside were thrown open.