“Make it quick and get back to your cage!” That’s the command Henry Bemis’s bank president boss barks out after berating him for reading on the job, and more generally for his interest in poetry, fiction, and books generally, an interest he tries to share with his customers, his boss, and his wife. His wife sadistically hands him a book in which she has crossed out every word. Henry is condemned by his wife, and seemingly by all as “a fool.”
That a world which condemns readers suffers a (nuclear?) holocaust, leaving only its greatest reader unharmed in the bank vault is both unsurprising and deserved. Emerging from his safe haven, Henry realizes that he’s alive, and that everyone else is dead. The environment is in tatters, but not unlivable. There’s food and a servicable couch. He wonders if he can stand being alone. “Is this how it’s going to be?”
Rooting around in the rubble, Henry finds a gun. “If it weren’t for the loneliness, if there were only something to do!” He raises the gun to his temple, but then sees that he’s at the steps of the public library, amid thousands of “books, books, all the books I want!” And “There’s all the time I want. Time enough at last.”
The ending twist to this story obscures what I take to be the the picture that is painted of a culture that so totally rejects literature is a world much less stable than it appears, and that even if a Henry Bemis survives, without other people, without the infrastructure required for the love of literature, even he can’t save it.