The Great Quail
I am often asked about the history of the Libyrinth and The Modern Word: Why did I create it? When did I become interested in this type of literature? What were my inspirations?

The piece below is my attempt to address some of these questions. Clearly an exercise in self-indulgence, I hope that it may help the curious better understand the inspirations behind this site.


On Beyond Zebra
IT IS A COMMON QUESTION to ask a literature enthusiast: What book changed your life? What work really set you onto a different path, what served as your wake-up call? As the Editorial Director of the The Modern Word, I get asked this quite frequently. What started you on the whole Modernism/postmodern thing? Was it Ulysses? Gravity’s Rainbow? A Kafka story read in college, or a copy of Slaughterhouse Five loaned to you by a high school English teacher?
Well....
For me there are actually two answers, but neither are as weighty as Kafka or Joyce. To be honest, I can trace my whole interest in“Libyrinth” style literature back to two Great Works of the Western Canon: Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Dr. Seuss’ epic On Beyond Zebra.
But first, allow me to really start, or in the words of one author of some fame: “In the beginning....”
They can doanything anything anything under the sun!

THE FIRST TIME I REMEMBER encountering a book was when I was about three years old. The book in question was a classic, but there was no question that my level of intellectual development was not quite up to the speed it demanded. How else could you explain the reason I covered all the snowbanks in The Cat in the Hat Came Back with green crayon?
Yes, that was the first book I remember. The Cat in the Hat Came Back by Dr. Seuss. Well – almost. I tended to confuse it with its prequel, The Cat in the Hat, and in my childhood mind they were just extensions of the same wonderful work, as I treat them now as well. But I still recall the feel of it all quite vividly; the bright colors of the Cat’s now-famous hat splashed against the black and white backgrounds; and that whole cast of characters: the impossibly drawn children and their neurotic fish, Thing One and Thing Two swirling about the house in a whirlwind of mischievous industry, Little Cats A through Z scurrying across the pink expanse of snow, and most especially the Cat – the marvelous Cat, moving through the nervous confusion of the children and the indignation of the goldfish with the languid grace of a feline Oscar Wilde.
But what about the words? Ah, yes, those strange angular symbols . . . although unable to read them, I nevertheless understood that they were the most magical thing of all. They were the key to the whole mystery, a Qabalistic code that could only be deciphered by the Rabbinical knowledge of a high priest . . . in this case, my mother. Somehow – somehow – my mom could take those lines of discord and turn them into song. They were the magic portal through which she could enter this world, and like a director on a movie set, run the characters through their paces. She was director, special effects coordinator, and producer all in one, and it was through the magic of her voice that the drawings suddenly connected, suddenly came to life....
When I think back on it, I am amazed at how so many things could be planted in my head at such an early age. Even then, I understood that a book was a wonderful thing. It was a small world . . . but without an understanding of the words, it was a world of locked doors, clouded windows, darkened mirrors. And yet not all was lost, for I still had a green crayon and a toddler’s imagination. So many books from my early childhood are covered with green scribbles – my first attempt to penetrate a sealed universe, a frustrated godling trying to connect the dots of someone else’s creation and make his own story. I can still remember, though dimly, the feelings of pleasure when I rearranged events to my own satisfaction. A Crayola demiurge, I added little playfriends to Curious George here, I changed the color of the Pink Snow there; once I believe, to my Aunt’s alarm, I deleted Madeleine’s head out of existence in a furious blast of waxy scribbles. But I guess even by doing this, I learned another important lesson: a book is not a closed world.
Enter the first work that set me on a course to the Libyrinth: Harold and the Purple Crayon. Upon reflection, it seems to be the perfect book to have thrown in my lap; perhaps my Aunt Cookie (I kid you not) saw some reflection of the protagonist in myself, her nephew. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, Harold was a child’s book from a different world, from a different age. (Actually, I’m pretty sure there are several Harold books, but in the fog of nostalgia they have all blurred into a single volume, one gestalt work, a mythical Ur-Harold.) Its minimalist pages, drawn mostly in shades of gray and purple, contained a tiny guy named Harold, no more than an infant, really. And his Purple Crayon . . . a highly enchanted stick of wax, this, no ordinary crayon: with it, Harold could draw things that became real. He could draw himself into any situation, and likewise draw himself back out, creating a whole universe of purple oceans, cities, balloons . . . oh yes, and roads, roads to vast purple adventures! Somehow this book made a direct connection with my imagination, laying the groundwork for a whole belief structure revolving upon the mystic axis of a purple crayon. I was in awe of the very idea: the act of writing, of drawing, of imposing one’s inner will onto the external universe, the idea that reality might be subjective to the imagination....
I still consider it to be my first brush with the numinous.

My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”


OF COURSE THE HERMETIC MYSTERIES of the ABCs could not elude my grasp forever. With the patient help of my mother and family, the United States public school system, and a certain large yellow bird, I finally learned how to read. No longer did I need to treat all my books as sketchpads, hurray! And though I could finally understand the real story behind each book, I soon discovered that my taste in literature was to take a new turn. I devoured everything I could get my hands on: I was at home with Bartholomew Higgins and the Lorax; I toured Paris with Madeliene; I ate my share of Green Eggs and Ham with Curious George; I rode on the backs of both Babar and Saggy Baggy Elephant. Eventually I even worked myself up to the echelons of Higher Learning, visiting the farm with Wilbur, Templeton and Charlotte during the day, and trading secrets with the Rats of NIMH in the wee hours of night. And if all that grew too mundane, there was always a trip through the Looking Glass.
But there was one book that shone above them all. One book that I kept returning to, like a pilgrim to his holy shrine. It was my Mecca, my Lourdes, my Brigit’s Well: my sweet, sweet On Beyond Zebra.
Why this book, above all others penned by Seuss, that amiable madman? Ahhh . . . that was the secret. On Beyond Zebra was different, you see. At first glance, one might easily pass over it. It contains no charismatic Cats in zany hats, no charmingly irascible Grinches, no parent-friendly Sam-I-Ams. Nor does it have the moral value of many of his other works: the Parable of the Sneetches, the Book of Yertle the Turtle, or the Haggia of the Great Horton. It’s not psychedelic like Mulberry Street, or flashy like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
You see, On Beyond Zebra starts where most other books leave off, because it begins when our protagonist, young Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell, learns the alphabet. But that’s not the point of this book, oh no – quite the opposite. Our Hero is about to have his smug world turned upside down, because he quickly learns – from a rather shady character with a suspiciously punk hairstyle, I may add – that the alphabet need not end at“Z.” What if . . . hold your breath, here . . . what if there was a whole other sequence of letters after that? What if it kept going? And what if those letters were actually needed to describe other places, other beings, other creatures? What if WUM is for Wumbus, and ITCH is for Itch-a-pods? Ahhh. . . . and of course, we all know what the rest of the book must be like. Once exposed to this idea, our Hero needs to see it, and – natürlich – his new friend obliges. But once revealed, that other alphabet begins to exert its influence....
See, these are no ordinary letters to be handed out to the common folk; and yet they have apparently existed forever, eternal and hidden, lurking“behind” the mundane alphabet for Seuss knows how long. Power words. Gemmatria. Runes. Each new symbol, each new squiggle on the chalkboard is a gateway to a different realm of being, where the normal laws of reality undergo new permutations. Soon the chalkboard vanishes, and our travelers are off to explore brave new worlds, alien configurations spun into being around the existence of a new letter, where towers spiral off into whorls of Seussian geometry and whole civilizations revolve around the letter NUH. And at the end (for a safe return is guaranteed, at least in Dr. Seuss) our Hero, a sadder and a wiser man, makes the final statement:“This is really great stuff! And I guess the old alphabet ISN’T enough!”
I ask you: how could this experience not have eventually lead to postmodernism and the Qabalah, to Borges and Finnegans Wake? It was from these Seussian vistas that I had my first glimpses of Macondo and Tlön; it was from these letters, YUZZ and GLIKK, QUAN and FLOOB, that I first learned how to spell the Tetragrammaton. Perhaps it’s not so very surprising that On Beyond Zebra is one of the Good Doctor’s lesser known works. To take a page from Pynchon’s paranoia, thank goodness They weren’t aware of it . . . what would They do to him, this secretive Doctor, encoding the Higher Mysteries into the eccentric lines of a children’s book? Go ask Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell. Or Alice. Or Tyrone Slothrop.

A Holiday in Middle Earth

AFTER THAT, IT WAS ALL DOWNHILL. I was hooked. I began reading anything and everything; I knew the ingredients printed on my cereal box by heart. My mother fostered this love of words in me, and sometime around second grade she made one of those sudden command decisions that mothers are prone to make. She came home from the library one day and handed me a book.
A thick book, with a white cover. Apparently, sort of a ghost story/mystery combo. I opened it up....
Jesus Christ, mom. There were no pictures. Just words. Whole troops of words in perfect paragraphical battalions, page after white page of them. I gave her that Look, you know the one: Gee, mom, what’s the story here, c’mon, I’m only like in what? second grade! But she just smiled and said that I should try it. Feeling suspiciously like the subject of some primitive parenting ritual, I gave it a whirl, and – surprise, surprise! I liked it! I felt like I had graduated to a new level, making the transition from the happy Land O’ Children’s Books to the heretofore mysterious realm known as Juvenile Fiction. Real novels! Oh, it was so . . . adult!
I immediately went off on a binge of mystery novels, raiding the library for whatever I could find. Being a sort of geeky kid with a fixation on Saturday morning monster movies, I naturally gravitated to horror, fantasy and science fiction. I also – a confession here – had, well, sort of a thing for Nancy Drew. I read a Nancy Drew novel every few days, concealing its girly pages behind a bookcover fashioned from a brown paper grocery bag – my shield, protecting me from the wrathful scorn of the other boys. I mean, my God, I was reading Nancy Drew, not the Hardy Boys, okay? This sort of thing could be grounds for a playground ass-kicking! (There were two reasons I liked Nancy Drew better. First and foremost, the plots were, generally speaking, just plain weirder than what the Hardy Boys had to offer. More supernatural: twisting stairways, ghostly candles, sinister heirlooms, that sort of thing. Additionally, she was always smarter, cooler, more clever, and – damn! Let’s face it, I had the pre-adolescent hots for her! Those bumbling Hardies weren’t fit to pick those long, strawberry blonde hairs from her bathtub drain. Idiots.) After Nancy Drew came Alfred Hitchcock’s “Tales of the Three Investigators.” Oh, yes, and every possible“juvenile” science fiction novel to cross my path . . . but a year later, after the heady rush of my novel discovery was over, I had still found nothing to compare to the simple amazement of On Beyond Zebra. The only thing that even came close was a little book my Aunt gave me . . . The Hobbit.
Interestingly enough, I soon began to hear rumors about this book. Apparently it was somehow connected to a larger idea, a thing, a concept, something called “The Lord of the Rings.” I asked around, only to get blank stares. I talked to other young bibliophiles, other Hobbit fans, a few teachers. Nothing concrete: whispers, tales, hearsay; snatches of information gleaned from the school library. The name began to acquire almost mythical overtones: “The Lord of the Rings.” Looking at my copy of The Hobbit, I imagined I could almost see it “in there” somewhere, like a puddle reflecting its distant mother the Ocean. Oh, yes – it was out there. And I was destined to find it. (My fourth grade teacher thought I was perhaps a bit obsessed. This was almost as bad as my Star Wars thing!) Finally one day I decided to cave in to Fate, and I turned to my mother. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, was to head to the Public Library, to find something called “The Lord of the Rings,” and to bring it back to me. Ha! I had the big guns on my side now!
Well, holy cow. Wasn’t I in for a surprise? Not just a book, oh no. THREE books, three LARGE books, each with a different name – aha! understanding dawned upon me. There was no single book named “The Lord of the Rings,” what a clever ruse . . . and, oho! there’s an order to which you must read them! . . . and maps! Maps of some weird place, with names like babbling rivers or shards of broken rocks. And appendices? With new languages? Calendars? Runes? Poems in an imaginary alphabet, for God’s sake?!?
I went nuts. I became a fiend. I read day and night. I stopped paying attention in class, I stopped playing with the other kids, I read until my eyes were swollen and my head pounded with fatigue. I faked sickness so I could stay home from school and read more chapters. Here’s a real memory: I am wrapped under the covers reading, as I had been all day. The classic scene with Gimli boasting of how many goblin heads he’s removed: “. . . but alas, my blade is notched.” My dad walks in, looks at me. Quietly: “So, what exactly have you been reading?” “Oh, a book about a war in a place called Middle Earth, where the Elves, Dwarves and humans are fighting the evil orcs, goblin forces slaving under the cruel whip of Mordor.” He nods. “Oh,” walks out of the room, and to this day he’s never again asked me that question.
I had found it, the grail. On beyond zebra lies a letter called “TOLK.”

Strange Aeons

THE NEXT FEW YEARS were consumed by more fantasy and science fiction. By junior high school, I had read most of the “classics.” Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. My reputation as an unsocializable bookworm was quite secure. I also, to be fair, read a lot of crap. But above all reigned my beloved Tolkien, and like a stern but loving Jehovah, there were no gods before Him. Whenever I needed to be brought closer to the faith, I re-read the Lord of the Rings, each time understanding and appreciating a bit more. And as I matured, I discovered that Tolkien was also a beautiful writer, not just a clever one. I also found my tastes changing. I was developing a finer appreciation of the art of writing as well, and it was a joy to discover writers whose talent at prose matched the brilliance of their ideas. Frank Herbert’s Dune was my big discovery of eighth grade, and a year later, Ray Bradbury nearly threatened the supremacy of the Professor Himself.
My next leap was catalyzed by an interesting medium – role playing games. Being a good little space cadet, I was of course heavily involved with Dungeons and Dragons since about seventh grade. Sometime during my early high school years, a reference manual for the game was released: Deities and Demigods. The purpose of the book was to summarize various mythologies for use in the game. The original edition – now out of print – included three fictional mythologies. One I had heard of before: Fritz Lieber’s world of Lankhmar. But the other two . . . Jesus. I had never read anything this weird: the“Melnibonéan” mythos of Michael Moorcock, and the“Cthulhu” mythos of some fellow named H. P. Lovecraft. Both were very weird, and both were very intriguing. The world of Moorcock seemed to be a shimmering and multifaceted one, definitely a“fantasy” world, and yet strangely psychedelic and modern. And this Lovecraft guy? Sick, sick, sick. I just had to read him.

The Libyrinth

THE LIBRARY AND THE LIBYRINTH. Obviously these two symbols have a lot of meaning for me, and I believe that I can trace my interest in them as metaphors back to the discovery of these two authors, still two of my favorites. The rest of my high school reading career was based from their works. Like the twin foci of an ellipse, I ranged out from them in circles of various eccentricity. I suppose Lovecraft gave me my first taste of the truly surreal, a sense of horror based on cosmic ignorance (or worse yet, knowledge!) rather than from standard old tropes like vampires and werewolves. It was in his library that I first encountered the power of imaginary books, where I first found delight in separating the tangled threads of fantasy from reality. Lovecraft opened me to a sense of allusive connectivity while coupling it with a paranoid fear of true correlation. The darkness of the Unknown was inscribed on countless mythical pages, and even our dreams became a conduit to a deeper level. Chasing down Lovecraftian allusions, criticism, and scholarship lead me to many terrible and wondrous places, from Borges’ Library of Babel to Kafka’s Castle. (My first introduction to Kafka was from an English professor who laughed at my report on Lovecraft. She thought he sounded “childish,” and recommended Kafka as a better way to get my paranoid kicks.) Ultimately, I suppose, I ended up in Porta Ludovica with a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum in my hand and a healthy fear of imaginary books.
Moorcock, however, liberated me from the rut of common fantasy and showed me how it could be written intelligently, wittily, cannily – all without stealing cookies from Professor Tolkien’s jar. His world was a labyrinth that spanned through eternity and infinity, a “million spheres” of possibilities, incarnations, configurations. His dazzling works lead me to the “new wave” of science fiction, where I first encountered M. John Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard. From here, it was easy enough to discover Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Robert Anton Wilson. From Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy I learned about a certain writer named James Joyce, and another one named William S. Burroughs. Somewhere, Thomas Pynchon was tapping his feet impatiently . . . or whatever Thomas Pynchon does.
But by this time, things had started to get all twisty anyway. One author began referring to another, and eventually all roads seemed to pass through Kafka and Borges. Libraries and labyrinths, books and mirrors. . . . in college I learned new words like “postmodern,” “hermeneutics,” and “philology;” all fine words, but still not the keys to what I was after. What I wanted was something to pull it all together, some kind of crayon to connect all the dots. I would map out references on notecards; I would trap my friends into literary debates at parties, I would name goldfish after characters from Ulysses. The world was alive with this great conversation; carried out in books over hundreds of years – all I wanted to do was take a more active role.
Then one day in 1995 I got hooked up to the Web. What can I say? We all know that feeling, to steal one of Frederick Pohl’s terms, that vastening; we all have tasted the Next Big Thing and have had our minds spun dizzy with the sheer potential. I was no different, and almost immediately I begged my techie friend Scott Youmans to give me a hand in designing a Web site. I realized that there were far too many useless pages on the Web, so I wanted to make sure that mine had a function, a reason for existence. This was actually quite easy – I decided to convert a lot of my writings for the “Vampire” role-playing game to HTML format and make them available, and so “New York by Night” was born. For a while I was quite happy. I learned to program HTML, and I became more adept at Adobe Photoshop. But there was still something missing, as if the Web were trying to pass hints to me: C’mon, Allen . . . you can use me, for, you know, that thing, you know, buddy – I’d be perfect, for . . . for....
Then it hit me. I had just returned from Ireland, and I was re-reading Ulysses. During the trip, I had a few questions pop up in my head about Borges’ views on Joyce. So, when I got back, I ran a search for Borges sites, and to my surprise I came up with nothing that could answer my questions. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t even any Borges sites to speak of! Then, for some reason, I tried Eco. Still nothing. Well . . . all right, how about Joyce? Bing! Many hits, many sites. One of which was called “Work in Progress.”
WIP was beautiful, a well-designed and witty site that had organized Joyce materials in a way that made sense to me. And yet, it was missing some things I would have really liked to see. (C’mon, Allen....) I cruised around a bit, then decided to check out sites for a few of my other favorite authors. No García Márquez. No Pavic. A few bits on Burroughs, a zillion pages devoted to Lovecraft, a few small Pynchon pages. (you can use me, for, you know....) The thought began to grow in my head. What if I . . . you know, started my own Joyce site? Not just that. What about Borges? And Eco? They all have so much in common, in a way, and – !!!
What about a site devoted to just that idea? Authors who share these ideas, who play with language, who . . . yes, yes, wait a minute . . . who are united by a theme, the Library and the Labyrinth, maybe?
I discussed my ideas with some friends, and I spent a whole day sketching my ideas out on a notepad provided to me at an education conference which I was studiously ignoring. First, I outlined the basic structure and jotted down a list of authors. To the sound of a speaker droning on about “our school system’s increasing problem with Attention Deficit Disorder” or something, I slipped into a sort of a Finnegans Wake daze and began writing out the first words of the introduction: “Welcome to the Libyrinth, Forth Wander of the Modern Word. . . .”
So here it is. The Libyrinth, later re-named The Modern Word. My attempt to apply some sort of quasi-organizational structure to my love of literature. Technology has provided me with this opportunity, and I would be crazy not to take it. No – I must take it, I am almost compelled to create this sprawling monstrosity. In a way, many things have not changed at all. I am still that little kid, marvelling in wonder at the power of words – and yet, I will never surrender my crayons! For how else can I describe all the things that I’ve seen, the places that I’ve been? For yet again, I’ve discovered another letter on beyond Zebra, and with purple crayon in hand, I am drawing its shape on the Web. Perhaps when I am finished, I will finally see its complete form . . . in which case, don’t expect to hear more from me. When that day comes, I will stand in front of my purple door, speak the magic Word, and step through.

– Allen B. Ruch, Lughnasa 1999