On the first page of the book was a picture of a little girl sitting on a bench. Above the bench was a thing like a ladder, except it was horizontal, supported at each end by posts. Thick vines twisted up the posts and gripped the ladder, where they burst into huge flowers. The girl had her back to Nell; she was looking down a grassy slope sprinkled with little flowers toward a blue pond. On the other side of the pond rose mountains like the ones they supposedly had in the middle of New Chusan, where the fanciest Vickys of all had their æstival houses. The girl had a book open on her lap.
The facing page had a little picture in the upper left, consisting of more vines and flowers wrapped around a giant egg-shaped letter. But the rest of that page was nothing but tiny black letters without decoration. Nell turned it and found two more pages of letters, though a couple of them were big ones with pictures drawn around them. She turned another page and found another picture. In this one, the little girl had set aside her book and was talking to a big black bird that had apparently gotten its foot tangled up in the vines overhead. She flipped another page.
The pages she'd already turned were under her left thumb. They were trying to work their way loose, as if they were alive. She had to press down harder and harder to keep them there. Finally they bulged up in the middle and slid out from underneath her thumb and, flop-flop-flop, returned to the beginning of the story.
"Once upon a time," said a woman's voice, "there was a little girl named Elizabeth who liked to sit in the bower in her grandfather's garden and read story-books." The voice was soft, meant just for her, with an expensive Victorian accent.
Nell slammed the book shut and pushed it away. It slid across the floor and came to rest by the sofa.
The next day, Mom's boyfriend Tad came home in a bad mood. He slammed his six-pack down on the kitchen table, pulled out a beer, and headed for the living room. Nell was trying to get out of the way. She picked up Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple, her magic wand, a paper bag that was actually a car her kids could drive around in, and a piece of cardboard that was a sword for killing pirates. Then she ran for the room where she and Harv slept, but Tad had already come in with his beer and begun rooting through the stuff on the sofa with his other hand, trying to find the control pad for the mediatron. He threw a lot of Harv's and Nell's toys on the floor and then stepped on the book with his bare foot.
"Ouch, god damn it!" Tad shouted. He looked down at the book in disbelief. "What the fuck is this?!" He wound up as if to kick it, then thought better of it, remembering he was barefoot. He picked it up and hefted it, looking straight at Nell and getting a fix on her range and azimuth. "Stupid little cunt, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your fucking shit cleaned up?!" Then he turned away from her slightly, wrapping his arm around his body, and snapped the book straight at her head like a Frisbee.
She stood watching it come toward her because it did not occur to her to get out of the way, but at the last moment the covers flew open. The pages spread apart. They all bent like feathers as they hit her in the face, and it didn't hurt at all.
The book fell to the floor at her feet, open to an illustrated page.
The picture was of a big dark man and a little girl in a cluttered room, the man angrily flinging a book at the little girl's head.
"Once upon a time there was a little girl named Cunt," the book said.
"My name is Nell," Nell said.
A tiny disturbance propagated through the grid of letters on the facing page.
"Your name's mud if you don't fucking clean this shit up," Tad said. "But do it later, I want some fucking privacy for once."
Nell's hands were full, and so she shoved the book down the hallway and into the kids' room with her foot. She dumped all her stuff on her mattress and then ran back and shut the door. She left her magic wand and sword nearby in case she should need them, then set Dinosaur, Duck, Peter, and Purple into bed, all in a neat line, and pulled the blanket up under their chins. "Now you go to bed and you go to bed and you go to bed and you go to bed, and be quiet because you are all being naughty and bothering Tad, and I'll see you in the morning."
"Nell was putting her children to bed and decided to read them some stories," said the book's voice.
Nell looked at the book, which had flopped itself open again, this time to an illustration showing a girl who looked much like Nell, except that she was wearing a beautiful flowing dress and had ribbons in her hair. She was sitting next to a miniature bed with four children tucked beneath its flowered coverlet: a dinosaur, a duck, a bunny, and a baby with purple hair. The girl who looked like Nell had a book on her lap. "For some time Nell had been putting them to bed without reading to them," the book continued, "but now the children were not so tiny anymore, and Nell decided that in order to bring them up properly, they must have bedtime stories."
Nell picked up the book and set it on her lap.
The book spoke in a lovely contralto, with an accent like the very finest Vickys. The voice was like a real person's - though not like anyone Nell had ever met. It rose and fell like slow surf on a warm beach, and when Nell closed her eyes, it swept her out into an ocean of feelings.
Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island in the middle of a great sea, with a little boy named Harv, who was her friend and protector. She also had four special friends named Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple.
Princess Nell and Harv could not leave the Dark Castle, but from time to time a raven would come to visit them...
"What's a raven?" Nell said.
The illustration was a colorful painting of the island seen from up in the sky. The island rotated downward and out of the picture, becoming a view toward the ocean horizon. In the middle was a black dot. The picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. "R A V E N," the book said. "Raven. Now, say it with me."
"Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?"
Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it.
The letter grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. "R is for Run," the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. "Nell Runs on the Red Rug," the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.
"Why is she running?"
"Because an Angry Alligator Appeared," the book said, and panned back quite some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself into a circle, which became a small letter. "A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell's Valiant Velocity."
The little story went on to include an Excited Elf who was Nibbling Noisily on some Nuts. Then the picture of the Raven came back, with the letters beneath. "Raven. Can you spell raven, Nell?" A hand materialized on the page and pointed to the first letter.
"R," Nell said.
"Very good! You are a clever girl, Nell, and good with letters," the book said. "What is this letter?" and it pointed to the second one. This one Nell had forgotten. But the book told her a story about an Ape named Albert.
The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson