Article: 288640 of talk.bizarre
From: (Jonathan K. Cohen)
Newsgroups: talk.bizarre
Subject: Encyclopedia Brown and the Death of Language (FTSD)
Followup-To: talk.bizarre
Date: 1 Dec 1996 22:46:50 GMT
Organization: University of California, Irvine
Lines: 320
Message-ID: <>
Keywords: deduction goths arson rouge noir meddling kids
X-Summary: America's Sherlock Holmes in sneakers, undone.

The town of Idaville had known peace and prosperity since its early
years. In the last four years, it had also enjoyed a measure of security
known to few towns in the state, or, for that matter, in the country.
Police Chief Brown, the top law-enforcement officer in Idaville, had
something of a secret weapon in his young son Leroy, known to all in
Idaville as "Encyclopedia." (Leroy, embarrassed by this cognomen, could
not bear to correct their spelling, though the name should properly have
been spelt "Encyclopaedia.") This name was still not at all just. An
encyclopedia is a large reference work containing articles on things of
general and local importance. It is organized alphabetically, rather
than by concept. Encyclopedia Brown's brain was unique, in that, given a
set of assorted facts, he could arrange them into a conceptual hierarchy
such that missing facts could be readily inferred from their absence in
this hierarchy. He did have a considerable number of extraneous facts at
his disposal, given his wide reading and adult library card, but,
really, he was more of an Inference Engine than an Encyclopedia.
Despite this nominal discrepancy, Chief Brown exploited the skill of his
son, by narrating to him, over dinner, the facts of cases he could not
solve. Encyclopedia would, prior to dessert, come up with the right

One day, Leroy's slightly older friend Sally, who possessed a measure of
skill in the physical arts comparable to those Leroy enjoyed mentally,
and who often served as Leroy's "muscle" in tight situations, came over
to his house, laughing merrily. Bugs Meany, the notorious tough guy and
neighborhood bully, had acquitted himself poorly in school that day.
Sally, who had often triumphed over Bugs with the aid of Leroy, saw Bugs
go down in flames in English class, over a discussion of the Scarlet
Letter. "It was hilarious, Encyclopedia! He told Mrs. Fletcher that he
couldn't understand the book at all, because of all the little words
that got in the way. Mrs. Fletcher called him a ninny! She said that
words are the most important things we have, because they represent
concepts, ideas, and things. Bugs was stuttering and stalling, but he
shut up soon enough. On the way out, though, I could hear him mumbling
something about revenge. I don't know, Enyclopedia, but I have the
feeling that something is going to happen. Something bad."

Encyclopedia pushed his glasses higher up on his nose. "The problem,
Sally, is that we don't have any indication of how he could get revenge
against a grammar school teacher. Teachers are the most powerful people
besides our parents. They cannot be harmed by disgruntled students."

One of the little kids in the neighborhood, at that point, came running
up to Encyclopedia and Sally. "Bugs is coming! Bugs is coming! And he's
got a box!" The trio rushed on down their street, to behold a curious
sight at the crossroads. Bugs Meany, adorned with his usual rumpled hair
and cardboard crown, was standing on an old wooden soapbox, before which
was strewn a large pile of kindling. Several young members of his circle
were clustered behind Bugs. More menacing, in Encyclopedia and Sally's
eyes, were several teenagers and older men, the sort who hung out at the
railway station and package liquor store. Most surprising to them was
that Bugs and the forces of Bugs, even the grownups, were clad in
loose-fitting black pajamas.

Bugs ascended his soapbox, directing a particular sneer at Encyclopedia.
By this time, a considerable crowd of Idaville kids and grownups had
coalesced in front of the soapbox. It was plainly time for an oration of
considerable length, an impression aided by the numerous sheets of
yellow legal paper festooned with crayon Bugs twisted back and forth in
his hands. Bugs began to speak.

"Recently, I had to say, to our beloved classroom
teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, 'One of the problems I have
always had with being a student of 'literature' are all
those little words that get in the way.'  And though I
gave these words a lot of thought, they strangely left
me tongue-tied. Whether from the eloquence of my own
analysis or from my own lack of something new to add, I
just didn't know what to say except, quoting Molly
Bloom, yes."

"Good grief," Encyclopedia whispered to Sally. "He really *has* been
sneaking into the adult section."

"But then this afternoon, I started thinking.  It
strikes me that my frustration is not unique and that,
as kids and grownups, we all probably share his
feelings about the messiness involved with these
"little words that get in the way." But being in a
grammar school, I had always assumed that these words
were my friends, that my job as a student was to come
to an understanding with language. Just because we are
all students of literature, though, does that mean that
language treats us any better?  Sometimes I imagine it
like a cease-fire and sometimes like a truce, but
wouldn't it be dishonest to think that it isn't a war
of some kind, perhaps a police action?  But if this is
in fact a war of some kind, perhaps the treaty is not
the only tool at our disposal.  That is, instead of
trying to come to an uneasy peace with words--always a
tricky process at best--I am calling for the
generalized destruction of language itself."

The crowd gave a disconcerted shudder, but was stilled by Bugs's icy
gaze. Bugs went on.

"Now I realize this might strike some of you as harsh,
but the fire is the best place for these things, since
words do little else than burn, anyway.  Of course,
some of you might be worried. You might say: Come on,
Bugs, remember what Heine said: "After you start
burning books, then you start burning people."  But I
am NOT following our pastor's argument that these books
show teens having sex, using illegal drugs, or
practicing devil-worship. I don't want to burn them for
those reasons.   Quite the contrary: these books LOOK
like they are using foul language and teaching the
black arts along with recreational drug use but in
reality they are FILLED WITH LANGUAGE, pure and simple.
 It isn't that I connect books with people, so that
burning one would be like burning the other.  I want to
burn the books, all the books, because they don't
connect with people.  Not enough, anyhow, for my
tastes.  I think that this is finally the right reason
to have book-burnings, because books have language in
them and I am against that."

"For these reasons, I am proposing a LINGUISTIC YEAR
ZERO, like Pol Pot called for back in 1975.  Did this
infamous Cambodian leader not write on Rimbaud and
Baudelaire?  Was he not a student of the French
symbolists? But where he was misunderstood as referring
to politics, we know where the real trouble lies.  Now
is the time to get back to our roots, to stop
signifying so much and start really meaning the things
that we say.  Time to go out into the rice paddies and
try to rediscover what it was that we used to think,
before we lost ourselves in this morass of so-called
communication.  If words don't always mean what we want
them to say, I say we don't need them!"

"But words are what he's using to *give* this speech in the first 
place!", hissed Encyclopedia Brown to Sally.

"So what tools do we have for this CAMPAIGN AGAINST
WORDS?  While we sit idly talking about language --
even while signifiers continue to ensure that FEAR is
BUSINESS AS USUAL in every city where it is spoken --
we should look to our very own SCHOOL for inspiration. 
Hasn't Idaville known very well the danger of these
lexico-terrorists?  Should we not feel ourselves roused
to new patriotic heights by the lengths that this
recent offensive has gone to in order to ensure that a
few more books might be kept safely away from causing
harm?  Of course, I speak of that brilliant Idaville
offensive, code named: OPERATION LIBRARY RETRO-FIT. At
first I, too, was worried when the public library and
school library closed over the summer: 'how will I
continue important research?' I asked myself.  But now
I realize that I was worried for the wrong reasons.
Today a cold sweat breaks out not because the books are
inaccessible but because they are MUCH TOO ACCESSIBLE
BY FAR. Now I know that many of you have removed as
many books as possible from the shelves, and I
appreciate the courage that took, to actually take
those loathsome and foul beasts into your own homes so
as better to monitor them. But the library caved in to
pressure and has reopened, at least for the time being.
Limited hours are only a temporary and faulty means of
combatting the problem.  Having a paltry three copiers
on the third floor will only discourage those that have
better things to do than stand in line for hours at a
back and wait for someone to actually USE the two card
catalogue terminals at the entrance? What if the book
hasn't been checked out by one of us?  WHAT IF XEROXING
someone accidently puts eye to page, the ink will be
spilt on our collective conscience.  Maybe you can live
with that, but I cannot."

"If we are to put an end to this we must continue the
momentum of this summer -- a veritable oasis of
unreading--and strike at the root.  OPERATION LIBRARY
RETRO-FIT can only carry on so long without our help. 
Now is the time. Today we must shake off the lethargy
that has thrown this haze about our heads and forge new
tools, fuse new horizons, construct clearer meanings,
and dig deeper sincerities in order to finally rid
ourselves of this befuddled ambiguity.  But Bugs, you
say, what weapons have we to do this? Idaville has
almost endless means of enforcing illiteracy and
stopping language in its tracks, but what can we
possibly do?  I tell you this: with the very tools we
are already using.  Our greatest weapon against
language is language itself."

"While we may not be able to physically stop books from
being removed from the shelves (I myself have tried, it
is difficult), we must instead understand how our own
positions put us on the inside track to subversion.
Think a moment about this -- our beloved English class
is really nothing more than a LANGUAGE CLASS. (I know
this isn't true, but this is what the outside world
thinks.)  And that means that most people think that we
have some special knowledge that will make sense of
this mess in ways they don't understand.  So what we
need to do is to subvert language from the inside,
hollow it out, explode its symbolic matrix and then run
for cover.  I am thinking of a two-pronged pincer
movement that should hit words right where it hurts.
First, treat language like a transparent medium for
communication of ideas, culture, whatever comes to mind
(literally).  Then, after that fails, tell them you
were sorry, that really language doesn't mean, rather
it is (as the poet says); that language is its own
domain, autonomous and unconnected with the outside
world, with its own laws and its own modes of cohering.
 Tell them that all language is really fossilized
poetry, filled with metaphorical meanings, not some
pedestrian vehicle for thoughts but the opacity of
existence, the clearing in which Being unfolds.  Tell
them that words are a temple that first fits together
and gathers around itself the unity of those paths and
relations in which birth and death, disaster and
blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline
acquire the shape of destiny for human being, the
all-governing expanse that is the world of this
world-historical people and from which the nation first
returns to itself for the fulfilment of its vocation.
Just whatever enters your head, it's easy once you get
the hang of it. Then when both of these fail and people
come looking for your head unload the coup de grace.
Tell them that you're sorry but these things happen.
Then tell them to turn their rage and their frustration
into something constructive, something positive,
something that will help make this world a better place
for ourselves and our children and our children's
children.  Then tell them about the fires and how books
need to burn, every page and every word until only
ashes are left of pretty speech."

"Gee, Terwilligers!," said a gap-mouthed Encyclopedia Brown to Sally,
who was racked by a combination of incomprehension of Bug's speech and a
strange physical, almost libidinous urge to push things forward into the
as-yet-unlit fire. "'The destiny of a world-historical people' is very 
dangerous nationalistic rhet..." But at that moment, one of the older
black-pajama-clad men stepped forward with a tire iron and slammed it
down hard over the front of Encyclopedia Brown's head. The iron burst
through the initial shell of the skull, sending fragments of hair, bone
and scalp scattering, and passed deep into the forepart of
Encyclopedia's brain. Blood, red haemhorraging blood, spurted from
Encyclopedia Brown's head, and for Encyclopedia, things started to
happen in slow motion. Despite massive trauma, he still seemed to
perceive the pajamaed man in front of him, smiling, smiling, stepping
aside to reveal Bugs on his soapbox, now ranting at his enraptured

"And who among us is the living instantiation of books
and language? The collection of books that NAMES,
LISTS, and ORDERS every fact we hold dear and true is
the Encyclopedia. After the Goths sacked Rome, scholars
preserved the miserable facts of classical
civilization, and most especially its writing, its
script, in such piddling chrestomathies, such spores,
as to allow language to resurface after it had been
properly wiped out through the use of clean, beautiful
force. I want nothing less than the death of he who is
the Living Encyclopedia, Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown!
Consign him to the living flame, which burns without
speaking a word!"

Encyclopedia could feel Sally, kind Sally who had once punched Bugs
Meany right in the nose, holding his right hand in a powerful grip. On
his other side appeared Jed, the gas station attendant, who had given
him gas on credit once, when his father was chasing bandits. Jed took
Encyclopedia's other hand. But rather than walking home with their
friend, they drew him closer and closer to the pile of kindling, then
raised their arms, swung him back and forth, and flipped him onto the
unlit pile. Jed grasped a five gallon can of gasoline, and proceeded to
baste Encyclopedia and the kindling with its contents. Encyclopedia's
brain was verging on synesthesia now, one part short-circuiting into the
other. "Why are they pouring Orange Crush on me?," he thought, smelling
the pungent aroma of spilt soda pop. A gentle warmth buoyed up beneath
him, and then, with his left eye, he saw a familiar book fall right next
to him. "Invertebrate Zoology," he thought to himself. "What a lovely
title." His backside began to feel comfortably warm. A pulse of alarm
crossed his mind, for he couldn't seem to move. On his chest landed
Volume I of the Oxford English Dictionary; Volumes II and III buffeted
his head from either side, their bindings now not dark blue, but a pale
orange disclosing a darker brown. Over his legs, though he could not
feel them, he could see Mrs. Fletcher's body, or at least her pale,
white, cellulite-covered legs, tied together with stout cord directly
over her bulgy ankles and sensible spectator pumps. It was at this moment 
that he realized that he was going to die, but he was not alarmed. Even 
if they burnt the whole school library and the whole public library on top
of him -- perhaps his father, too, when the mob had become too large for a
small-town police department to control and had begun to sack and ravage
the downtown area -- even then, things would be all right. Encyclopedia
remembered that Chinese emperor he had read about once, who had prepared
three thousand five hundred terra-cotta dolls of his servants and
ministers and soldiers and subjects, to be buried along with him. Just so,
Encyclopedia and his teacher and his beloved father, Chief Brown, would
go to heaven with ten thousand useful and instructive volumes, and there
they would all read together in peace and harmony. God would send them
all the updates to all the Encyclopedias, and they would laugh, from the
seventh sphere, on the folly and misery of the world below. At that
moment, Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown lost consciousness, and, shortly
thereafter, was compounded with the ashes whereto he was kin.

Encyclopedia should have learned from The Case of the Viennese
Painter that someone with Bugs's rare combination of arrogance,
pettiness and megalomania might erupt into demagoguery and
violence at any time, given a sufficient number of reversals 
and slights. He should have urged his father, Chief Brown, to
"disappear" Bugs long ago, in the interests of a civil society.
In homage to Donald J. Sobol.
Thanks to Christopher Diffee ( for letting me
quote and liberally adapt what is here the text of Bugs' speech.

Jonathan K. Cohen, Internet Projects, UCI Bookstore, Irvine, CA 92697
email:; book orders:; tel:(714)824-3164
UCI Bookstore World Wide Web site:
PGP Public Key: send email to with email address as body