The story opens at the end of a desolate, late autumn day in the aftermath of a great war. The landscape is a vast, empty prairie, with nothing but the fading traces of battle to be seen. Civilization is dead, and few survivors have been reduced to a primitive state. In an earthen cave, four men huddle by a small peat fire; what wood there is must be saved for the coming, deadly winter. Doctor Jenkins is wrapping up four books from which he has been reading: the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), and Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the only books he has saved from the catastrophe. These books, he remarks, contain what was good in the old civilization, even though they could not save that civilization. He adds that he hopes that they will help the people of the next civilization to be strong enough that they will not fall behind when they become clever.
One of the other men is a writer, but he has nothing on which, or with which, to write. He says enviously that because Jenkins has the books, Jenkins will have a little soul left until he dies. That is, the books embody and give soul, although the meaning of the word is ambiguous. Jenkins grudgingly offers to let the others hear his phonograph, a windup machine. Because one of the guests is a musician, Jenkins says he will use one of his few steel needles, instead of the thorns he normally...
(The entire section is 436 words.)