“But I know who the real hero is, and it isn’t me or even the brave Lanaya. It’s an old man with a white beard and a walking stick and a heart so big it won’t let him stop thinking he can change the world by writing things down in a book that no one will ever read.”
-Rodman Philbrick, The Last Book in the Universe
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In this dystopian novel, books no longer exist. No one reads. No one remembers what life was like before the Big Shake that destroyed civilization. One old man named Ryter is writing the last book in the universe, recording memories from his ancestors and a record of life as it exists now.
Spaz, the protagonist, lives in what’s called a “latch,” a sort of chaotic community run by a latchboss. He needs help getting back to the latch where he once lived, where his adopted sister Bean is dying of leukemia because the cure has been lost. Ryter insists that he go with Spaz, to record this last adventure before he dies.
Other characters in this story are “proovs,” genetically improved people. They’ve been programmed to resist diseases and cancer, so they have no need of chemotherapy that can cure Bean’s disease. Spaz meets a proov named Lanaya, and the three of them fight off gangs of evil people to get to Bean. All the while, Ryter spouts poetry and discusses events that took place before the Big Shake, drilling into Spaz the importance of keeping a written record, of writing down one’s story.
A beautiful moment happens toward the end of the story. Bean asks Ryter why he constantly makes references to being old and dying. Ryter worries that he won’t have time to finish his book. Bean’s response reveals that she understands the importance of story: “”But would it ever really be finished?’ she asks. ‘I thought the book was your life, and it would only end when your life ends. Except it won’t really end, because people will read it and remember, so in a way you’ll live forever.'”
This book is a dystopian novel, set in a chaotic world. It’s not as dark as many other dystopian novels I’ve read, making it suitable for younger readers. Just as with other dystopian stories, Philbrick has established a jargon for his world. Fortunately, this jargon either explained or easy to figure out.
It’s really a great story. Ryter quotes Frost and Yeats, which had me cheering internally as I read. He’s a great character, wise and intelligent and courageous, inspiring Spaz to be more than just a slave to the latchboss and to fight for the things that are right and good. This is a re-read for me, but it’s definitely one I would go back to again and again.