I have always been a slow reader. I get discouraged by dense text and I struggle to finish books thicker than the width of my thumb.
When our class was allowed to roam the intimidating rows of books on library day I usually ended up browsing the Choose Your Own Adventure section. It wasn’t great literature but the format of the books was perfect for slow readers like me. Many of the pages had lots of white space making room for all the starts and stops that allow you to pick your path through the story. Bouncing from page to page you could “finish” the book with only touching a fraction of the pages.
Depending on how poorly I chose my adventure, I could “finish” a book in ten minutes. To fill the rest of the mandatory reading hour I would flip through the book skimming the pages that concluded with “The End.” When I found an ending I liked I would trace backward through the decision tree until I found the path that lead to the best end.
Most of the books were simple to reverse engineer, except for Inside UFO 54–40.
While scanning Inside UFO 54–40 you can’t help but notice a 2-page illustration depicting Ultima, a utopic destination that seems to be the goal of the storyline.
The problem is that the book doesn’t contain a decision tree that points at this happy ending. Instead, Ultima is an Easter egg hidden in the book taunting kids to find the non-existent path to this destination. The text accompanying the Ultima illustration explains that:
You did not make a choice, or follow any direction, but now, somehow, you are descending from space–approaching a great, glistening sphere. It is Ultima–the planet of paradise.
The page ends with:
“As you can see, there is such a place after all,” says Arkam, “though very few from Earth’s universe ever reach it.”
“No one can choose to visit Ultima,” says Elinka. “Nor can you get here by following directions. It was a miracle you got here, but that is perfectly logical, because Ultima is a miracle itself.”
This is surely the most profound message in the history of junk literature.
We plan our lives with ambitious goals and fantastic dreams. Our chosen adventure begs us to find shortcuts. We get sucked in by top-ten lists, link bait, ear worm, pop-ups, teasers, and fake news. The world seems optimized for short attention spans.
Most of our stories are predictably unremarkable, they end oblivious of the alternate paths that were available.
Many of us live through trial and error, determined to reverse engineering our way to success.
Others are just lucky, stumbling accidentally into happy endings.
And some of us break the rules, persistently striving to uncover the meaning hidden in the junk.
Thanks for reading. Every Saturday I write short essays like this. Follow me so you don’t miss the next one. Or choose not to, it’s your adventure. Stay creative.