Between the stacks: A fictional, philosophical search for an age-old answer

What is the meaning of life?

Over the years, many have tried to answer this question through philosophical debates, comedy routines, religious quests and the like. Still, others prefer to view it as more of a rhetorical question —thought-provoking, yet lacking a definite answer.

The question has pervaded all areas of modern life, appearing among "in my opinion " questions in the Say Anything board game and serving as the plot basis for Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

One of my particularly favorite instances of this question — as well as my favorite way of posing the question — appears in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, where the "answer to life, the universe and everything" is simply 42.

(Fun fact: A Google search for this question will give "42" as the first result.)

I offer these examples of the pervasiveness of "the meaning of life query" because I want to show how fundamentally human this question truly is. We may not sit and reflect upon it like philosophers once did, but we all strive to find meaning in our individual lives. Put simply, we search for purpose. Why do we exist? Why are we on this planet? Why here, why now, why us?

Tim Davys recently tackled this fundamental question with his latest book, titled "Yok." However, he put a very unique spin on it by casting stuffed animals as the main characters.

In "Yok," stuffed animals are manufactured at the factories and delivered to families in Mollisan Town. The animals all live very normal lives in the way that you and I do, but given their stuffed animal nature, certain things vary from life as we know it. For one thing, fire is very dangerous for stuffed animals.

(Given that they are manufactured with various synthetic materials, they light easily.)

Plastic surgery is a bit different as well; it could render a stuffed animal as someone else, with the right stitches and replacement parts. And in Mollisan Town, life ends for stuffed animals when the Chauffeurs come for them in the red pickup.

Yet, all stuffing aside, these animals still seek out a meaning and a purpose to their lives, which makes them highly relatable.

Yok, a part of Mollisan Town, is filled with poverty, crime and corruption — and with the colorful characters who are all trying to beat the odds and pursue their dreams.

The story is told through four tales, titled after the neighborhoods in Yok: Sors, Pertiny, Corbod and Mindie.

In Sors, the pursuit of true love forces Fox Antonio Ortega to face three impossible challenges for the permission to marry Beatrice Cockatoo, daughter of the gangster boss Dragon Aguado Molina.

In Pertiny, Erik Gecko battles self-contempt and loathing, while struggling to find an identity apart from his violent and abusive brothers, Leopold Leopard and Rasmus Panther.

In Corbod, the musician Mike Chimpanzee longs for fame and recognition and finds freedom along the way.

And in Mindie, Vincent Hare rushes forward in life in an urgent attempt to find its meaning: "Can the meaning of life be to seek the meaning of life? Nothing scares us more than what we don't understand."

While the stories are excellent in their own right, it's the details in Davys' writing that takes them to a new level of storytelling. He interweaves childhood tales and fables into the characters' personality traits, making their animal nature as much of a physical description as a personality archetype.

The fox is handsome, quick on his feet and a trickster (although this particular fox requires much prompting and guidance for his trickery). The cockatoo is a bit vain and lacking certain wits. The gecko blends into his surroundings and hides from the limelight, while the panther and leopard are natural predators.

But it's the hare that catches my attention the best — always racing in life, trying to beat the sands of time. And it's the hare's quote that sticks with me long after finishing the book: "But there must be something else ... some idea with placing all the stuffed animals in the city? The factories that manufacture us, who owns them? Who runs them?"

This quote seems so human, so relatable, because once again, the question begs to be asked, "What is the meaning of life?"

Amber Castens is an adult and teen services librarian at the Urbana Free Library, where she also is the technology volunteer program coordinator.

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