LIVING ON BOOKS

 

"How did you happen to lose your family?" Imre asked suddenly.

Szami settled that with a short, "I ran away," But Imreís next question was harder. What had he been doing for two years? How had he earned a living?

Imre, for the first time in his life, found Szami - of all people - unwilling to talk. It took considerable repetition and urging to get a reply.

"IÖI lived," Szami said at last, "on books."

"Books!" Imreís surprise complete. Sazmi and books were arch enemies, like fire and water; how they had managed to get together was worth finding out. "Books? ...but how could you live on books?"

"Oh...easily enough, by selling them."

"You mean you were in the book trade?"

"Sort of ...Anyway, I sold them."

"But how did you get them?"

"...I begged for them."

It was a strange statement; the ashy moonlight on Szamiís face underlined is strangeness. Imre was at a loss.

"Books?"

"Books?"

Szami finally felt that some explanation was due.

"You see", he said slowly, "I tried to beg for food, and I couldnít. The words just wouldnít come out. I could feel them in my mouth, just "Give me bread"- it had a taste-words themselves were almost like bread. You wouldnít believe it, but itís true: they felt lump, as if they were glued to my throat- and couldnít get out.

"What did you do?"

"I would try, at one peasantís house after another - then just ask for the time, thank them and leave - again and again. Then I left the peasants alone. I picked some fruits from the trees along the road and lived on that for days. Then, when I couldnít stand it any longer, I went to a big house.... You wouldnít believe the way they looked at you when you start to ask for something and donít offer anything in return. I never saw that kind of look on a face before...Well, thatís how it started. I saw books lying around on chairs and tables, even on the floor; you could see they were very well liked, those books, or theyíd been put on shelves and kept clean.... Thatís what gave me the idea. I said I was a student very poor, and I needed books - any books. History or literature or school books - from the Fourth Gymnasium up. That was right for my age, you see; besides, thatís the kind of books they would have. And they gave them to me; I got books at every single house. They wouldnít have given me food: people would rather give away books. They liked their stomachs better than their heads, and they are much more friendly if you tell them its your mind thatís hungry, if you donít spoil their dinners by reminding them that they have left you out - that a fellow-being is starving...,"

The two boys huddled into their jackets; they were chilly.

"I sold those first books in the next town, without even looking at their titles, just offered them for sale at the first book-store. Then I begged new ones in that town and sold them in the next.

... That time I read a line or two. Later I read whole pages, then whole story. It was interesting, so after that I read them all before I sold them. Some of them were so good that I liked them so much; it broke my heart to sell them. But they were heavy, and though my business was getting better, I was still hungry. So I couldnít keep any, I just read them."

He laughed nervously.

"Read them as I hiked ... Iíve read a lot of books in two years- hundreds of them - all while walking. I guess plenty of people can read faster than I can - but not while walking. If there were some competition for walking readers, Iím sure Iíd be the champion."

"Er...hm..er, I bet you would!"

From the book "Foolís Apprentice"- by Martin Munkacsi.