The Republic of Redaer prides itself on its Story-Talkers, an elite group of artists responsible for preserving the nation’s rich storytelling tradition. For many centuries, the Story-Talkers have lived together on a government-provided estate, dedicating the vast majority of their time to the memorization of the Ancient Works and the creation of New Works. These works are traditionally delivered in massive public performances; audiences would travel from all corners of the Republic to hear the recitation of the famous epics (The Lone Traveller, for example, or The Divers’ Saga). Entire families would often take a week each year to attend the performances at the Story-Talkers’ estate; parents would bask in the masterful delivery of stories they’d heard since childhood, and their own children would have the chance to hear the tales for the first time.
It was a rich oral tradition, one that gave the citizens of Redaer a sense of shared identity, especially in regards to the highly beloved Ancient Works. As the centuries passed, however, the canon grew larger, and the Story-Talkers began struggling to remember all the details they were charged with protecting. Small things were forgotten: a minor character in the Ballad of the Boxer, a plot twist in the Tale of the River Walkers. The Story-Talkers became necessarily consumed with memorization: young Story-Talkers spent thousands of hours in tutoring sessions with their elders, leaving neither group with enough time to create any New Works of significant artistic value. The problem, then, was dire and two-fold: there was the gradual loss of Ancient Works and the failure to produce any New Works.
The government, recognizing the severity of the issue, dedicated an enormous quantity of resources to finding a solution. After many months, they were met with success: the invention of the Story-Page (what we would call a “book”), which could hold a written account of the Ancient Works. Thrilled at the prospect of being freed from memorization, the Story-Talkers spent the next five years recording the tales that had so long lived exclusively in their heads. The Library of Redaer was established on the outskirts of their estate, and any citizen, after taking a basic literacy course, could—for a fee—rent a copy of an Ancient Work, in Story-Page form, to read at his or her leisure. The benefits of performance were lost, but new benefits were gained: the ability to read at one’s own pace, for example, and in one’s own home. Relieved of their burden, the Story-Talkers were again able to create and perform New Works of artistic merit. Everyone was thrilled; the national mood was euphoric.
What the government had not foreseen was the development of an underground story-sharing culture, whereby citizens would secretly lend their library books to each other. Often, lending occurred between close friends or family members; a mother would lend her son a copy of the River Walkers, for example, when he learned how to read. Sometimes, though, large networks of people would establish “reading chains.” In a reading chain, one physical Story-Page was passed through dozens—or even hundreds—of hands before returning to the Library.
As the reading chains grew longer, fewer and fewer people took out Story-Pages from the Library. The government noticed that its revenue from library fees (which helped cover the Story-Talkers’ living expenses) was declining, and after some investigation, they located and arrested several of the more prominent chain organizers (“chainers,” as they were known in the underground chain culture). The Story Protection Act, passed despite public outrage, forbade the creation of and participation in lending chains. Lending was still permissible among close friends and family members, but any lending that involved three or more individuals was officially classified as a “chain.”
The Act proved ineffectual. Though the law was clear, it was also unenforceable; citizens cold lend books to each other in the privacy of their own homes, tucked away from the government’s eye. The government saw no increase in its revenue from library fees—in fact, chains were formed more fiercely, bound together by a sense of moral outrage. “Reading is a right,” claimed famous chainer Rick Tandy in his trial. (Tandy, an early champion of the Free Reading movement, had been arrested for his role in arranging a seventy-person chain.) Access to the Ancient Works, he argued, led to greater intelligence, creativity, and empathy on the part of the reader. Plus, literacy had increased demand and appreciation for New Works. Audiences at New Work performances had never been larger; the Story-Talkers had never been happier, and the government’s lost revenue from library fees was counteracted by increased ticket sales for New Work performances.
But the leaders of Redaer paid no heed to the arguments of Tandy and his colleagues; instead, they passed a new law known as the Readership Era Security Act (RESA), which recalled all extant Library books and gave the Library the power of Literacy Restrictions Management (LRM). Under the auspices of LRM, the Library converted all its Story-Pages into illegible code. Every citizen was given a special pair of reading goggles, and, upon legally withdrawing a Story-Page, his or her goggles were adjusted such that the particular Story-Page would become legible. If that citizen lent her Story-Page to someone else, it would appear to that person as gibberish; if she tried to lend her goggles, a special security chip would immediately alert the police.
A consequence of LRMs was that friends and family members could not effectively lend Story-Pages to each other. Tandy was particularly outraged on this point, as intra-family lending had been made explicitly legal in the Story Protection Act. He spent several years designing a pair of “universal goggles,” which would allow someone to read any coded Story-Page. He gave these goggles away freely, but with the warning that they were to be used only for legal lending. Whether or not this warning was delivered earnestly is beside the point; armed with universal goggles, chains reformed, more strongly than ever before. Tandy was arrested and tried for attempting to circumvent the LRMs. He was given a hefty sentence, despite public protests at his trial, on the Story-Talker estate, and in taverns across the nation.
To this day, chain culture exists in opposition to government regulation. Though Tandy is forbidden from communicating without a government official present, others have stepped in to fill his shoes. As the Story-Page encryptions become more complicated, so too do the universal goggles. There is a clear public thirst for Story-Pages, for free and unlimited access to the Ancient Works. (Some rogue chainers have even begun transcribing and circulating illegal copies of New Works, though the public looks less favorably on that practice; reading a New Work has been proven to decrease one’s likelihood of attending a performance.) Their central argument? Reading is a right. It’s a refrain, a battle cry, the proud and enduring defense of Free Readers nationwide. Reading is a right.