Sunday, November 07, 2004


Before the uncontrolled proliferation of the Internet, and my subsequent susceptibility to the ad infinitum contents therein, I was always pleasantly surprised when I could find answers to questions that arose in my mind by referring to books in my own personal library. My little reference collection, sadly, stands largely untouched: the particles of dust that tickle their surfaces are the exception. It is now Google that I run to in times of informational need.

All of this came to mind as I read a passage from Matthew Battles' Library, in which he refers to Harvard's Widener Library:

"In the stacks of the library, I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe. Fluttering down the foot-worn marble stairs that drop into the building's bowels, descending through layer after layer of pungent books, I am often struck by the sense that everything happening outside must have its printed counterpart somewhere in the stacks."

With this model in mind, it stands to reason that a personal library represents the sphere of awareness that constitutes the universe of one individual. That would explain why any question that was deemed of personal import could be answered with the works at hand. We surround ourselves with things, in this case books, that matter to us and speak to us. Should our curiosity lure us to terra incognita, there is always the mother ship to rely upon.

Battles also posits that there is a certain danger involved in suggesting that the mysteries of the universe can be elucidated through the library model. If all the permutations and combinations of scrolls, papyri, incunabula, manuscripts, books, newspapers, and periodicals can lead us to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, we may be driven mad as the volume of information, whether that be manifest in physical or virtual format, exponentially multiplies. Perhaps then, Battles notes, "if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book--why not into a single word?"

How about a number?


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