“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
⸺ Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”
When the author discovered the blank book, she knew it would become the best novel she had ever written.
She found it at a bookshop, in a pile of Victorian novels stacked high against the back wall. It was a clothbound book, dusty and old, but its spine seemed fresh and untouched. Outside, a blue folded cloth stretched over the book. Inside, the book contained nothing: Only 500 blank pages. Why were the pages left empty? It was a question the author couldn’t answer, so she invented stories.
It had been a printer’s mistake. It was a flaw in the paper stock. The choice of paper had been absolutely wrong. The book press had not flattened it enough. No, its bookbinder grew bored and left her project unfinished. It had been rejected. It had been a work of art. Yes, it was the subject of artistic debate for some years. It had been one of those experimental livres d’artist. It had been a satire. It had been a postmodern joke.
The author looked at the book as if it were a cloud refolding into whatever shape she imagined. As she flipped through the book, its phantom signs flickered past her eyes. Ghostly signs that had not yet been written scintillated under the bookshop’s fluorescent lights. The book’s intimations made the author dizzy with desire.
But she did not buy it. “This blank book,” she thought to herself, “means nothing to those readers who only have ears for written books. This blank book only speaks to me.”
She was content to leave it there, knowing she could return to it one day. Even so, she considered hiding it for safekeeping. As she searched for a secret refuge, she remembered Borges had said that “the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest,” so she ended up slipping it back into the space where she had found it.
That evening, the author imagined buying the book and running home with it. Under the night’s hazy darkness, she stayed awake dreaming of the book, fantasizing about its absence. She thought about the stories and adventures sprouting from its leaves. Each leaf was void, equal and empty. Each page was a new canvas. Each space a boundless field.
January collapsed into February while the blank book grew in the author’s mind. The problem was that the author was afraid to buy it. The book was a floating world that terrified her. It revealed an entirely new sense of reality, which was an overwhelming responsibility. She feared losing the book as much as she feared losing herself within it. But still, the author dreamed of owning the blank book.
One day after work, the author grew impatient waiting for her bus, which was running late. Her feet suddenly began to walk toward the bookshop, drawing her closer as if by the book’s empty lull.
It was exactly where she had left it. She weighed its thickness in her hands and brought it to the counter, where the bookseller idly stood behind a wooden desk.
“Sorry, hun,” the bookseller said, “this one must’ve gotten mixed up.” She rubbed her chin.
“It’s funny,” she laughed, “I say I sell books, but this isn’t much, is it?” The bookseller gestured toward the shelves. “Don’t you want another look around?” The author shook her head, but the bookseller continued, “Well, we’ve got loads of great books, good novels to read. Nice day for it, too.” She turned toward the window and rested her hand on her hips.
“But this is a great book. This book is my novel,” the author said.
Warmly, the bookseller chuckled under her breath, “Your novel, huh?”
“Not exactly, no,” the author replied, “the earliest flickers of it. This blank book is my nascent idea.” The bookseller did not understand what the author meant by this, but was glad to make a sale and sold the book to her anyway.
Outside the bookshop’s windows, long purple shadows grew and stretched down the street. The bookseller sat at her desk until the purple turned black, still thinking about what the author had said to her.
At home, the author poured herself into the blank book. She placed it on her desk, illuminated it with the orange glow of her table lamp, and touched the fibrous pores of its paper. Nothing had ever been so pure.
All her life, the author had failed to convey what she really meant. She had suffered so many years of anguish, so many listless nights of writing and rewriting. Her life was an accumulation of unhealthy frustrations, piles of rejection letters and emails; time stolen from family and friends. The author’s only companions were chronic pain, caffeine and nicotine.
This blank book would change all of that. Everything the author had failed to put into words could live here, could be clothbound and created here in these 500 blank pages. This blank book had nothing to do with language: It went beyond that. It was the emptiness of this book that would make space for the author to say exactly what she wanted to say, everything she could ever want to say, forever.
Late one morning, the author walked past the bookshop and the bookseller ran out to greet her. “I’ve told everyone I know about your novel,” the bookseller said, “and they’ve all asked to hear you speak about it.” The author emphatically agreed.
People piled into every corner of the bookshop on the day the author came to speak. It was a talk she had prepared on the ambition of her blank book and the hours she devoted to interpreting each leaf to her satisfaction. The author said that contemporary literature fails us because it tethers us to the written word. Language binds us to its realm of meaning.
As long as this book remains blank, the author said, its emptiness creates novel possibilities. This blank book is an endless breathing space for possibility.
As she spoke, the audience became absorbed by the author. They marveled at how she described her project, how she took a breath in and calmly drew it out. How she effortlessly borrowed and extended phrases and poured them into a collective body of sound.
This blank book must be the spaces between sounds. This must be sweet as those “unheard” melodies of John Keats; sweet as silence “beneath the trees.” This must be eternal as Nabokov’s unseeable ink: “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words all being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.” This must be the warmth of the sun. This must be the moment when Rousseau said, “There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist.” This must be April 29, 1930 in Virginia Woolf’s diary: “The greatest stretch of mind I ever knew. . . .” This must be an open door. “This must be the emptiness of leaves,” the author said, “this blank book is unbound.”
The author finished speaking and crowds formed around her. People asked if she would publish her blank book so that they could have a copy of their own. Hearing this, a woman who sat in the back row came forward and pulled a card from her jacket pocket. She called herself a publisher, then mentioned a book deal.
The publisher and author had several weeks of emails and phone calls. Shortly after, the printer sent the first copy to the publisher, who was eager to deliver it to the author.
But the author, unfolding the copy, looked at it from an awkward distance. It felt, unlike her own blank book, constrained. It felt heavier in her hands. Outside, its fabric cover was stretched and tightened. Inside, most but not all of its pages were blank: her own name had been typeset on the flyleaf, stamped with black ink.
“This isn’t my book,” the author said.
She tried to explain, but the publisher kept on saying this was just the business of books, and the author did not know what to do. She strained her eyes to see what she had always seen before, but she could not see it here.
It was odd to hold this copy, her name; herself stated here by the typesetter’s ink. It felt like an altered version of her original idea. It uncovered the haunting feeling that she had made a mistake. She feared that her own blank book was not meant to have an author or copies of its own. If her own blank book was bound to be empty, had she been wrong to call it her own and fill it with her name?
This is just the business of books, she reasoned.
At first, 1,500 copies were printed, then it was some thousand more. Word spread. People from everywhere began to talk about the author’s book. The author ended up making a career of writing about her blank book. She became a keynote speaker at international conferences and museums. Writers and philosophers theorized about her ideas. Some speculated on how she deviated from her contemporaries, others on her literary influence.
Over time, the author became more famous than the book. The author became so renowned that other authors began to copy her, speak and write like her. Then, blank books became a genre of their own. Every bookshop devoted a section to blank books. Thousands of different authors’ names were written on the flyleaf of each one, but still, the author’s book was elevated above all the rest because it was the first of its kind.
One could imagine how deeply the author wanted to forget that blank book. How it reminded her of what she had taken from it by calling it her own. How often she thought of rubbing it away, erasing it to begin again. How she wanted to throw it out and into the fire. If only she could see its white pages tossed down, burned up and curled into strands of dust.
But she did not burn it; the harm was already done. The book had already been bound and closed shut. Her name was on it, but she had disguised her hand in its undoing. She had affixed herself to a book that pleased everyone except her, she realized. She did not become the author she had hoped to be.
Better to hide a leaf in a forest, she thought.
The author stared at the blank book; it stared back. She picked up a black-ink pen and opened it. Her pen pressed down the pores of the paper as she began to write an imagined narrative of her life. Wet ink spilled over white pages. Shapes turned into letters, letters embedded into phrases and sentences, then paragraphs and consolidated chapters. As the pen quickened, her words slipped and flowed past herself.
She had been writing so quickly that the author did not notice the effect that writing had on her body.
She did not notice how her skin wrinkled as she wrote or how her breath fell shorter and heavier. She did not notice to what extent her body suffered from each turn of the page and from each mark laid down. Finally, the author signed her novel as the words drained the ink from her pen and dried out on the paper.
The author, having finished her novel, slipped it into her own pile of Victorian novels stacked high against the back wall.