I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis
Jim is visiting Manhattan, doing publicity for his blog, Gone for Good, and hoping to sell it as a book to a publisher. The point of Jim’s blog, and his sincere belief, is that things dying out and disappearing ― payphones, elevator operators, VHS tapes, and books nobody cares about ― is part of the natural order, a sign that society doesn’t need these things any longer. If society changes its mind, they can always be brought back. Books are generally digitized, after all. Or so Jim asserts.
When a meeting with a publisher gets cancelled, Jim wanders the streets of Manhattan until a downpour of rain drives him into an old-fashioned bookstore, Ozymandias Books, which appears to deal in rare titles. Jim wanders through the shelves, bemused at the odd variety of obscure books that he sees.
Promise Me Yesterday was cheek by jowl with A Traveller’s Guide to Salisbury Cathedral, Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross, and a 1928 Brooklyn phone book.
Jim ventures deeper into the bookstore, and ends up, Alice in Wonderland-like, following a beautiful blonde woman down a rabbit hole staircase (each step piled with books) to a hidden, cavernous warehouse beneath the streets of Manhattan filled with ― you guessed it ― millions of books, along with a mail chute that constantly spits out more books in a steady stream. Jim’s blonde reappears, conveniently, and Jim gets a personalized tour of this mysterious repository.
Despite abundant clues, including several not-so-cryptic hints from his tour guide, Cassie, Jim takes an inordinately long time to realize just what Ozymandias Books is really all about. The name of the bookstore, Ozymandias Books, is an intriguing symbol, but Willis pounds the symbolism hammer too hard here.
And all googling “Ozymandias Books” brought up was a headshop in Boulder, Colorado, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about a traveler in the desert who stumbles onto a monument to some forgotten pharaoh that has an inscription that says, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” even though whatever “works” he’d had have long since disappeared.
It leaves too little to the imagination of the reader (though I did find it amusing that one of the books Jim notices is called The Lone and Level Sands). Cassie’s name is a more subtle clue, though Jim does explicitly wonder if Cassie is a nickname for Cassandra.
I’m generally a big fan of Connie Willis‘s work, but this novella fell a little flat. Willis takes an idea ― the intrinsic value and irreplacability of printed books, even the most mundane ones ― and runs with it, wrapping the entire novella around this single concept. I Met a Traveller is simply too one-note and comes across as somewhat simplistic message fiction. Additionally, some librarians have complained in their reviews of this novella that part of Willis’s argument ― that librarians “cull” or discard old library books without checking for rarity or other available copies ― is simply inaccurate. And despite some creative details, including their filing “system” and an admirable mix of the titles of actual lost literary works (such as Sylvia Plath’s Double Exposure) with more mundane titles like a Tiger Beat issue, overall the story just wasn’t imaginative enough to completely engage me. Still, I’d love to spend a few days with this lost book collection!
I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It has just been published by Subterranean Press in April 2018 as a stand-alone novella.