On Books and Infinity

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On Books and Infinity

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | September 5, 2013 | Comments ()


I like to walk through the endless stacks at the university libraries as if they are blessed groves, silent and dark, the fluorescents only flickering to life unwillingly. The shapes of books blur together into walls, their different heights creating jagged gaps through which gaze a cacophony of additional aisles, fading off into the distance like a mirror glimpsed within a mirror. These repositories of books are holy places, whether the grand cathedrals of the great libraries, or the humble chapels of used book stores behind dry cleaners.

There’s something personal about the small ones, the comfort of going home. But those large ones, those grandiose college libraries with a dozen half-floors crammed floor to ceiling, with every volume known to man arrayed and cataloged, those convey a sense of grandeur, of monumental size that is something unique. They humble you with their sheer size in a rare slide past the myopic defenses our minds erect against noticing just how small we really are. It’s the feeling we get when we really look at the ocean, realizing not only that we could never swim past that horizon, but that we could never understand first hand just how tiny our swim to exhaustion would be. Books are like that to because they’re a TARDIS, each and every one, larger on the inside. Even the fastest reader can stand in a largish room filled with shelves and realize that he is seeing more than he could possibly read in a lifetime.

It’s funny how much bigger books are on the inside. How many paperbacks could you carry? Really hit the gym and then load up a bag, and what, fifty? A good year’s reading all piled up at once in your arms. Pull up a moving truck full of books outside your house and pay a couple burley guys to start bringing them in. You won’t have to pay them much more than the cost of date night before they’ve already loaded your house with more than you’ll get through in two lifetimes.

And all that’s even before considering the way books are nested in and of themselves. Grab a nonfiction book off the shelf, a good solid book about history, and flip to the end. Just that single volume has a list of references at the back that should burn a decade or so of your life reading.

Music went through a similar phase, as we first compressed entire orchestras and bands down into these funny little discs and cassettes. And eventually we were carrying around about six straight years of music embedded in a matchbook-sized chunk of plastic. But the difference was that those still required the machinery, the various wonders of the modern age that can turn a black disc into roaring waves of sound. Books though had that combination of pure physicality and compression. They contain the infinite but the only key is our own eyes.

There are quite a few stories that posit that heaven is a library. Neil Gaiman has a wonderful bit in Sandman showing that the realm of dreams has a library that is filled not only with every story ever told, but every story that might ever be told. My favorite of these variations though is one I can’t even recall the source of, in which the afterlife is indeed a library, but an odd one, a series of interconnected, identical rooms. Each room contains the same number of books, but it is a random selection from the infinity of stories. Some in your language, some not. Some fiction, some not. Every book ever written in the history of time and you get a random sample. You can go from room to room, finding ever more random volumes. And you might meet other readers, other denizens of this twilight world, and you hear rumors from them that this infinity has a center. That one of these rooms contains an index of all the other rooms, and he who dwells in that room is God.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • This was super good. I was talking to my girl the other day about needing another bookshelf and she suggested I sell some of my books instead. She was somewhat taken aback at my reaction to her terrible idea. I couldn't quite put into words why it was a terrible idea, but I'm going to e-mail her a link to this article.

  • e jerry powell

    I like watching books being made. I plot out the puzzles of how individual signatures get printed in 32s. When I was working at International Paper, cleaning up the accounting books for all the local printing companies, I was completely intrigued. Weights of papers, cutting machines, all the binding supplies.

    Mechanics. That's what I like.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Not only are books much larger on the inside but, like a TARDIS, they allow you to travel through time like the Doctor himself. And isn't that something that all great art does?

  • maureenc

    Is the photo of O'Gara and Wilson in Chicago?

  • mlbolton

    This is just lovely and a true look into a true reader and it does make me think of If On A Winter's Night A Traveler-----
    oh - all those books !!!!!!

  • junierizzle

    Im sure some of you have seen this but it's a pretty cool list. Especially if you are like me, someone that wants to read more but wasn't sure where to start.


  • Ms. Twiggley

    Gaiman's sometimes co-author, Terry Pratchett, has a wonderful theory that all libraries are interconnected because they are so dense with information they form their own dimension, called L-space. "Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass. A library is just a genteel black hole that can read."

  • BWeaves

    There's nothing like a beautiful old bookstore or library with beatifully carved bookcases that go on for miles, and ladders and ceilings and map cases. Feeling books in your hand are not anything like seeing pixels on a screen that you can swipe. I love the smell of books and the texture of the pages and the look of the fonts and print, and the illustrations if they have them. I like to write in books, when appropriate, to fix errors or make my own observations.

    While I believe that disposable reading (newspapers, magazines, and trashy novels) are perfect for e-readers. And even many how-to books benefit from the inclusion of videos, I really, really, really do not want nice hardbacks to disappear.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    I used to feel the same way before I worked in a used book store.

    Opening up some of those things was a doorway to Hell because my allergies are just--I wish I could rip them off of my skin and out of my sinuses and personify them, not so much for the relief but for the sweet revenge of beating them like rented beasts of burden. I have had conjunctivitis five times in my life (I know, but the ragweed, pollen and mould spores started it, not me), and three of those times came from old books that attacked my immune system because the tiniest little speck would land on my eyeball. I love libraries and book stores, and as cold and lacking of soul the new ones may be, at least they don't give me freaking pink eye. I prefer print to electronic, definitely, I just prefer if the print copy isn't older than me.

  • PDamian

    I own a Nook Glow and a pretty substantial home library. Print will never lose its appeal for me; nowadays, I just think very carefully about what I buy in print (Will I want to re-read this in a year or so, or over and over, or never at all) while buying the more ephemeral stuff for the Nook. But I have to admit: as I age, the Nook is coming in handy. I can increase the font and turn the internal glowlight on. The Nook is lighter than many books, too, so I don't put pressure on my shoulders when I read.

  • Modernlove

    This was just beautiful. And, in a way, reminds me of how the describe the Great Library in the Thursday Next books. Endless corridors of every book ever written, all the books under construction, all the books that will never come into being but float around with loosely formed plots and characters. I've often wanted to live there.

  • Yossarian

    Or the trip to the bookstore from the opening chapter of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler

    Which, what the hell let me just paste the whole thing right here for you since we're on the subject because it's just so lovely:

    In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

    the Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages,
    the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
    the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
    the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
    the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
    the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
    the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

    Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

    With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

    All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter's night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established.

    You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.

    You derive a special pleasure from a just-published book, and it isn't only a book you are taking with you but its novelty as well, which could also be merely that of an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacked begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries.

    No, you hope always to encounter true newness, which , having been new once, will continue to be so. Having read the freshly published book, you will take possession of this newness at the first moment, without having to pursue it, to chase it. Will it happen this time? You never can tell. Let's see how it begins.

  • Modernlove

    Well, I know what I'm going to be adding to my "Read Immediately" list.

  • Mrs. Julien

    It is fabulous. Literally, it's the stuff of fables.

  • JoannaRobinson

    Oh, Steven, you know you're the best.

  • mswas

    Heaven is a library.

  • Fredo

    Give me a giant comfortable chair in the middle of a library and a cup of coffee and I'll be there forever.

  • John W

    If Heaven is a library then hell must be akin to that Twilight Zone ep where Burgess Meredith loses his glasses.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Hell is other font sizes.

  • Mrs. Julien

    With a garden to read in and dog to rest its head in your lap.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I'm going to also need a cat for spare cuddles.

  • Yossarian

    Are you talking about "The Library of Babel" by Jorge Luis Borges?

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Argh, you beat me and I rebuke you for it. Well, not really, but 'a pox on all of your heads' was my last birthday wish, so I can't confuse the cosmos that way.

  • marigi

    Yes! Borges is the first thing that popped in my mind when I read the title of this post. And the Book of Sand, that never ends...

  • Mrs. Julien

    I got the urge to look it up in the dictionary she bought me. It's black and enormous and filled with the presence of some sort of God.
    - Jane Hamilton The Book of Ruth

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