For someone who writes a book review blog, what could be a more horrifying scenario than a novel about a post-apocalyptic world without books? The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick came out of the author writing that down as a title and then developing first a short story, then later publishing as full novel.
In a future America after an event referred to as The Shake, a giant earthquake has changed the culture of generations. The descendants of most of the original survivors live a hardscrabble existence divided into districts known as latches. Each latch is controlled by a ruthless leader who employs fear and violence over the inhabitants. A teen named Spaz lived in one of the slightly better latches and was raised by foster parents despite the fact that he is an epileptic. However, when they had a child of their own, the father was worried that Spaz might somehow hurt Bean, his sister. The reality is that Spaz loves Bean more than anyone in the world and would never cause her any harm, but his foster father was unconvinced and kicked him out of their home and he was banished from that entire latch. Without any other options, Spaz goes to live in a latch ruled over by gang leader Billy Bizmo who lets him be part of the group as long as he steals valuable items for them.
What doesn’t make sense to me in this book is that Billy is able to steal or scavenge a lot of old tech devices and gadgets, but he never comes across a single book when there were once millions. Yes, paper is a bit more delicate than metal, but given the amount of books that existing pre-Shake you would think some would survive, but I guess if that were this case this book wouldn’t exist. Perhaps one reason there aren’t any books is maybe people burned them for fuel or used them for other things as they wouldn’t have seen value in books, people have other forms of entertainment in this world. They still have something like dvds, though most people prefer probes. Probes are needles you stick into your brain to have something like a virtual reality experience, but more direct and intense as it is interfacing directly with your brain. Maybe it’s that intensity that makes the probes seem similar to a drug as the people of Spaz’s world seem to get addicted to them, or maybe it’s just people want to escape their hard and dreary lives. Spaz doesn’t use probes because he can’t due to his epilepsy and it’s what makes him different than most people. You see when the probes are overused they affect memory; people only store information in their short term memory, not their long term memory if they use the probes too much.
One day Spaz sets off for the Stacks, an old storage unit where the poorest of the poor live. His mission is to steal from an old man named Ryter, which readers will discover is an apt name. Ryter is so compliant about letting Spaz steal all his possessions that Spaz becomes suspicious and spots what the man in hiding, a sheath of papers. It turns out the man is writing a book, which Spaz doesn’t see the point of as no one reads and there aren’t any libraries anymore so he wonders why anyone would be so dedicated to write a book, yet somehow it intrigues him and he ends up returning to talk to the man. Around the time of this burgeoning friendship, Spaz is told by a Messenger who has crossed the latches (which is illegal and dangerous) that his foster sister is deathly ill and he is determined to risk everything to see her.
Spaz ends up being accompanied on this journey by Ryter who sees this as an opportunity to write one final big adventure to add to his book despite the danger. Inevitably, they run into some very bad situations while on the trip, but one good event happens, they run into Lanaya, a proov. Proovs are like the current 1% as they live a completely different life than anyone in the latches. They live a life of luxury, get physical enhancement which are well beyond current plastic surgery and live in their own territory isolated from the 99%, though Lanaya is an exception among her community as she comes to the latches and hands out food packages similar to people who currently hand out food to the homeless. The occurrence of the two worlds colliding will have significant repercussions for all the characters.