On Books and Infinity
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.