I’m sure you’ve seen the movie. A mouse of a boy runs down an indifferent city street, three larger boys in pursuit. Having recently tossed him into a dumpster because he had no lunch money to be extorted, they are trying to catch him to toss him back in after he climbed out covered in garbage. To escape his tormentors he ducks into a dusty old book store, great ratty-edged tomes scattered around, the shop owner sitting in a tall backed leather chair with a large book in his hands. The boy, an avid reader, asks the shopkeeper what book he is reading. The old man does not answer, instead he cryptically warns the young boy to stay away from the book as it is not “safe” as the other books he has read are.
When his phone rings the old man gets up to answer, setting the book down. The young boy, Bastian, sneaks a peek at this “unsafe” book. He sees a plain brown cover with only two distinguishing features. One is a medallion of sorts, two intertwined snakes, and the name of the book stamped in gold lettering at the bottom. The Neverending Story. Bastian cannot resist the temptation. He grabs the book, leaving the shopkeeper a note promising to return it, and takes off. The old man smiles knowingly, and a touch menacingly in my opinion, when the shop door slams and he sees that his book has been borrowed.
Bastian makes it to school to find out that he is very late and that the day has already begun. Instead of entering the classroom and taking a late slip, he runs up into the attic of the old school, a forest of cobweb covered bric-a-brac, most of which looks like it would be more at home in the attic of a haunted Victorian mansion than the attic of a public school. Bastian settles in and begins to read this “unsafe” book and soon finds out why the old man gave it such a descriptor. He finds himself becoming a part of the story. Not in a metaphorical way. In a very real way it falls to Bastian to save not only the characters living their lives between the pages of The Neverending Story, but he discovers that he himself is a part of the tale, the only boy with the power to save story itself from the destructive force of The Nothing, the emptiness that is consuming fantasy because humankind has been losing its hopes and dreams.
The Neverending Story made a huge impression on me when I first saw it and not just because I was about Bastian’s age when the movie was released. In a lot of ways I was Bastian. I recall days when I faked an illness so I could stay home and finish a book. When I was in seventh grade, instead of walking to my bus stop as usually required to do, I walked right past it and up to the Thriftway right near my house (where I would later work for one torturous summer) and found shelter in a copse of trees behind the store. I spent two days there, engrossed in Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song, sitting in the crook of a tree, lost in the story. I returned home each day at my normal time, complete with faked homework assignments and fictionalized accounts of a successful day at school. To my knowledge that literary tryst has remained secret from my parents until this moment. Sorry, Mom and Dad (but not really as that is an excellent book). I was never chased by bullies demanding my lunch money and exchanging it for shame and ridicule, but a part of me did, in fact still does, relate very strongly to Bastian.
I have always loved to engage in story. The vehicle I take to get there does not matter. Be it reading or be it writing, it is not the destination as the old cliché goes, it is very much the journey. When I saw the picture above posted on a friend’s Facebook page, I just had to steal, I mean borrow, it. It put me in mind of The Neverending Story almost immediately. The boy, standing on the stack of books, the books giving him the physical lift he needs above the physical world around him, looking over a drab wall full of hateful, dark graffiti at a world full of wonder. This is what fiction is for me. Not simply an escape from the real world, but a step up to live, for however short a time, in a world where the only limit to what can occur is the author’s own imagination and the reader’s response to it.
There will always be a part of me that will yearn for the special magic of books and story to not only lift me up above the wall of reality to view those amazing fictional worlds, but to slingshot me clear over, to land me right into the heart of a world my feet have never touched and my hands have never explored. But until the day when I happen into an old used book store (hopefully not gasping for breath after a footrace from bullies) and find my own wizened shopkeeper with an “unsafe” book in his hands, I will continue to find my way there in my mind. I will let the author’s words be that special magic and my own imagination the vehicle.
I have to go. I just heard a thunderous crash from behind that graffiti covered wall. Time to pick up my book, take a climb up on the stack, and see what it was.
Should this be the time I do not return, keep reading.
And keep dreaming.