I spent a lot of time at the library as a kid. I’d go there for hours, roaming the long rows of what seemed like such colossal shelves to a little person. Libraries weren’t a place one went to merely select out a handful of books to check out. That would be too gross an affair, the dine and dash of literature. No, libraries were places to marinate the mind, and the pile checked out at the end merely the doggy bag, the thing to tide you over until next time.
My mom always said the best books were on the bottom shelves, hiding down there where no one looked. And so that was where a child’s hands wandered first. I spent many a Saturday, sitting on the floor of the library in some random row or another, plucking books on a whim to sample.
But I don’t write now to praise libraries, but the thing that reminds me of those long afternoons: the random page button on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has approximately a small infinity of pages, of course, and I use it daily to look up one thing or another. But it’s the picking of random pages where it truly shines to me. It’s like channel surfing except with words instead of mere video. I’ll hit it a dozen times before landing on something that sucks me in. A dozen half empty pages and placeholders, and then a detailed accounting of something so deeply tangential to my experience that I appreciate the simple fact that someone somewhere loved a thing enough to scream about it into the void.
It’s those empty spaces, empty of knowledge but still a shell of what could be known, that are fascinating still. They give a texture to the world one placeholder sentence at a time: the results of a 1964 soccer game, the name of the capital of a province of Sweden with nothing but a bare dot on a map and a terrifying consonant to vowel ratio, the three sentence biographical short of a 19th century accordion player. On the one hand, it’s minutia that can’t even be called trivia, but on the other it’s the broad strokes of every story you’ve ever wished to read. It’s the quantum foam of the human experience, frothing down below the ordered narratives of books and histories. It’s a reminder that the human experience is a small infinity, that any one of us can only see the broad curve of.
That random page button is how I fill the small moments of time that emerge between projects, in those minutes of downtime when watching television or reading something of length just isn’t feasible. And every single time, it’s like being seated on the floor of that vast library again, tracing fingers through the passing waters.
Go read something random, and tell us what wonders you find.