Books as Libraries

Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

The analogy holds if you think of the black and white page pattern as only the surface of meaning, of thought, of history. After all, ultimately, writing is a trace of the past. This is a strongly temporal view (in a linear sense that bars psychic abilities), but it is justified: no matter how pertinent or providential a book’s content is judged to be by succeeding generations, this content can only have been produced by the facts, the influences, and the legacy of the human culture preceding the book’s existence. Such a view damns books to a rapid obsolescence (panta rhei), but on the other hand, it considers them the ultimate product of a magnificent root system any reader can access by delving into the surface of the page.

We could not have postmodernism without modernism without romanticism without classicism, for example. We could not have Tom Stoppard without Shakespeare without Greek tragedy. We could not stand on the shoulders of giants without those giants having shoulders, or lats, or hips, or feet that stand on some other giant’s or midget’s shoulders, for that matter.

In that sense, every book is a library in its own right. Knowing how to unpack and consciously appreciate that library … Well, for that you need a vast amount of experience or education. But the deep roots are there, even if you only pluck the few top-layer potatoes.

(I’ll cease with the horticultural aspect now.)

In the imaginary world, Borge’s Book of Sand  is probably the most famous infinite book. It got its name because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end, as Borge’s book-seller explains. Opening the Book of Sand yields a random, arbitrarily-numbered, never-repeating page every time. The Book of Sand is a library in most senses except perhaps the most vital one: it is not searchable, not comprehensible. The narrator came to despise it, saying I felt it was a nightmare thing, an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.

Indecipherable infinities are perplexing, at their mildest, insanity-inducing, at their extreme. But they are our reality. At any one time, we are surrounded by many kinds: the discrete—like that of sand; the continuous—like that of water; the implausible—like the length of the boundary of a Koch snowflake; the ineffable—like the godly eternity of a philosophical nunc stans. We even live within a seemingly unending internal world of thoughts and feelings, or rather, we live yoked to it by a series of internal mirrors, through which we see ourselves bouncing back and forth, back and forth, creating the sensation of what we call consciousness.

Perhaps: not only is every book, but also every human, a library.

Manguel describes his library as teetering columns of books that seemed to combine the vertical ambition of Babel with the horizontal greed of Alexandria, referring to the famous libraries of antiquity. This description encapsulates two important axes: the temporal progression of culture (through reading and writing) and the temporal preservation of culture (through transmission and reading). But there’s a third axis missing: depth.

Culture would be very much planar, like the blank page or screen, and very much meaningless, were it not for those fragile and flawed bipeds with unpredictably deep insight, that stack book on book, book beside book, and book in front of book, all within their minds. Then they synthesise and innovate in non-replicable ways, each and every one of them unique in their existence. Humans read words and give them purpose.

Perhaps every human isn’t just a library, but every human is an infinite library, slightly obscene, like Borges’s Book of Sand, but ever so powerful, like Babel and Alexandria combined.

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