“There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)
“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page…He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone.”
—Rod Serling, “Time Enough at Last,” The Twilight Zone (1959)
When entering a huge library—whether its rows of books are organized under a triumphant dome, or they’re encased within some sort of vaguely Scandinavian structure that’s all glass and light, or they simply line dusty back corridors—I must confess that I’m often overwhelmed with a massive surge of anxiety. One must be clear about the nature of this fear—it’s not from some innate dislike of libraries, the opposite actually. The nature of my trepidation is very exact, though as far as I know there’s no English word for it (it seems like some sort of sentiment that the Germans might have an untranslatable phrase for). This fear concerns the manner in which the enormity of a library’s collection forces me to confront the sheer magnitude of all that I don’t know, all that I will never know, all that I can never know. When walking into the red-brick modernist hanger of the British Library, which houses all of those brittle books within a futuristic glass cube that looks like a robot’s heart, or the neo-classical Library of Congress with its green patina roof, or Pittsburgh’s large granite Carnegie Library main branch smoked dark with decades of mill exhaust and kept guard by a bronze statue of William Shakespeare, my existential angst is the same. If I start to roughly estimate the number of books per row, the number of rows per room, the number of rooms per floor, my readerly existential angst can become severe. This symptom can even be present in smaller libraries; I felt it alike in the small-town library of Washington, Penn., on Lincoln Avenue and in the single room of the Southeast Library of Washington D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue. Intrinsic to my fear are those intimations of mortality whereby even a comparatively small collection must make me confront the fact that in a limited and hopefully not-too-short life I will never be able to read even a substantial fraction of that which has been written. All those novels, poems, and plays; all those sentiments, thoughts, emotions, dreams, wishes, aspirations, desires, and connections—completely inaccessible because of the sheer fact of finitude.
Another clarification should be in order—my fear isn’t the same as worrying that I’ll be found out for having never read any number of classical or canonical books (or those of the pop, paper-back variety either). There’s a scene in David Lodge’s classic and delicious campus satire Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses in which a group of academics play a particularly cruel game, as academics are apt to do, that asks participants to name a venerable book they’re expected to have read but have never opened. Higher point-values are awarded the more canonical a text is; what the neophytes don’t understand is that the trick is to mention something standard enough that they still can get the points for having not read it (like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) but not so standard that they’ll look like an idiot for having never read it. One character—a recently hired English professor—is foolish enough to admit that he skipped Hamlet in high school. The other academics are stunned into silence. His character is later denied tenure. So, at the risk of making the same error, I’ll lay it out and admit to any number of books that the rest of you have probably read, but that I only have a glancing Wikipedia familiarity with: Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’ve never read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is ridiculous and embarrassing, and I feel bad about it. I’ve also never read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, though I don’t feel bad about that (however I’m wary that I’ve not read the vast bulk of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books). Some of those previously mentioned books I want to read, others I don’t; concerning the later category, some of those titles make me feel bad about my resistance to them, others I haven’t thought twice about (I’ll let you guess individual titles’ statuses).
I offer this contrition only as a means of demonstrating that my aforementioned fear goes beyond simply imposter syndrome. There are any number of reasons why we wish we’d read certain things, and that we feel attendant moroseness for not having done so—the social stigma of admitting such things, a feeling of not being educated enough or worldly enough, the simple fact that there might be stuff that we’d like to read, but inclination, will power, or simply time has gotten in the way. The anxiety that libraries can sometimes give me is of a wholly more cosmic nature, for something ineffable affects my sense of self when I realize that the majority of human interaction, expression, and creativity shall forever be unavailable to me. Not only is it impossible for me to read the entirety of literature, it’s impossible to approach even a fraction of it—a fraction of a fraction of it. Some several blocks from where I now write is the Library of Congress, the largest collection in the world, which according to its website contains 38 million books (that’s excluding other printed material from posters to pamphlets). If somebody read a book a day, which of course depends on the length of the book, it would take somebody about 104,109 years and change to read everything within that venerable institution (ignoring the fact that about half-a-million to a million new titles are published every year in English alone, and that I was also too unconcerned to factor in leap years).
If you’re budgeting your time, may I suggest the British Library, which though it has a much larger collection of other textual ephemera, has a more manageable 13,950,000 books, which would take you a breezy 38,291 years to get through. If you’re of a totalizing personality, according to Google engineers from a 2010 study estimating the number of books ever written, you’ll have to wade through 129 million volumes of varying quality. That would take you 353,425 years to read. Of course this ignores all of that which has been written but not bound within a book—all of the jottings, the graffiti, the listings, the diaries, the text messages, the letters, and the aborted novels for which the authors have wisely or unwisely hit “Delete.” Were some hearty and vociferous reader to consume one percent of all that’s ever been written—one percent of that one percent—and then one percent of that one percent—they’d be the single most well-read individual to ever live. When we reach the sheer scale of how much human beings have expressed, have written, we enter the realm of metaphors that call for comparisons to grains of sand on the beach or stars in our galaxy. We depart the realm of literary criticism and enter that of cosmology. No wonder we require curated reading lists.
For myself, there’s an unhealthy compulsion towards completism in the attendant tsuris over all that I’ll never be able to read. Perhaps there is something stereotypically masculine in the desire to conquer all of those unread worlds, something toxic in that need. After all, in those moment’s of readerly ennui there’s little desire for the experience, little need for quality, only that desire to cross titles off of some imagined list. Assume it were even possible to read all that has been thought and said, whether sweetness and light or bile and heft, and consider what purpose that accomplishment would even have. Vaguely nihilistic the endeavor would be, reminding me of that old apocryphal story about the conqueror, recounted by everyone from the 16th-century theologian John Calvin to Hans Gruber in Die Hard, that “Alexander the Great…wept, as well indeed he might, because there were no more world’s to conquer,” as the version of that anecdote is written in Washington Irving’s 1835 collection Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others. Poor Alexander of Macedon, son of Philip, educated in the Athenian Lyceum by Aristotle, and witness to bejeweled Indian war-elephants bathing themselves on the banks of the Indus and the lapis lazuli encrusted Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the gleaming, white pyramids at Cheops and the massive gates of Persepolis. Alexander’s map of the world was dyed red as his complete possession—he’d conquered everything that there was to be conquered. And so, following the poisoning of his lover Hephaestion, he holed up in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian palace, and he binged for days. Then he died. An irony though, for Alexander hadn’t conquered, or even been to all the corners of the world. He’d never sat on black sand beaches in Hokkaido with the Ainu, he’d never drank ox-blood with the Masai or hunted the giant Moa with the Maori, nor had he been on a walkabout in the Dreamtime with the Anangu Pitjantjatjara or stood atop Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound or seen the grimacing stone-heads of the Olmec. What myopia, what arrogance, what hubris—not to conquer the world, but to think that you had. Humility is warranted whether you’re before the World or the Library.
Alexander’s name is forever associated not just with martial ambitions, but with voluminous reading lists and never-ending syllabi as well, due to the library in the Egyptian city to which he gave his name, what historian Roy MacLeod describes in The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World as “unprecedented in kingly purpose, certainly unique in scope and scale…destined to be far more ambitious [an] undertaking than a mere repository of scrolls.” The celebrated Library of Alexandria, the contents of which are famously lost to history, supposedly confiscated every book from each ship that came past the lighthouse of the city, had its scribes make a copy of the original, and then returned the counterfeit to the owners. This bit of bibliophilic chicanery was instrumental to the mission of the institution—the Library of Alexandria wasn’t just a repository of legal and religious documents, nor even a collection of foundational national literary works, but supposedly an assembly that in its totality would match all of the knowledge in the world, whether from Greece and Egypt, Persia and India. Matthew Battles writes in Library: An Unquiet History that Alexandria was “the first library with universal aspirations; with its community of scholars, it became a prototype of the university of the modern era.” Alexander’s library yearned for completism as much as its namesake had yearned to control all parts of the world; the academy signified a new, quixotic emotion—the desire to read, know, and understand everything. By virtue of it being such a smaller world at the time (at least as far as any of the librarians working there knew) such an aspiration was even theoretically possible.
“The library of Alexandria was comprehensive, embracing books of all sort from everywhere, and it was public, open to anyone with fitting scholarly or literary qualifications,” writes Lionel Casson in Libraries in the Ancient World. The structure overseen by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, who were Alexander’s progeny, was much more of a wonder of the ancient world than the Lighthouse in the city’s harbor. Within its walls, whose appearance is unclear to us, Aristophanes of Byzantium was the first critic to divide poetry into lines, 70 Jews convened by Ptolemy II translated the Hebrew Torah into the Greek Septuagint, and the geographer Eratosthenes correctly calculated the circumference of the Earth. Part of the allure of Alexandria, especially to any bibliophile in this fraternity of dreamers, is the fact that the vast bulk of what was kept there is entirely lost to history. Her card catalogue may have included lost classical works like Aristotle’s second book of Poetics on comedy (a plot point in Umberto Eco’s medieval noir The Name of the Rose), Protagoras’s essay “On the Gods,” the prophetic books of the Sibyllines, Cato the Elder’s seven-book history of Rome, the tragedies of the rhetorician Cicero, and even the comic mock-epic Magrites supposedly written by Homer.
More than the specter of all that has been lost, Alexandria has become synonymous with the folly of anti-intellectualism, as its destruction (variously, and often erroneously, attributed to Romans, Christians, and Muslims) is a handy and dramatic narrative to illustrate the eclipse of antiquity. Let’s keep some perspective though—let’s crunch some numbers again. According to Robin Lane Fox in The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian the “biggest library…was said to have grown to nearly 500,000 volumes.” Certainly not a collection to scoff at, but Alexander’s library, which drew from the furthest occident to the farthest orient, has only a sixth of all the books in the Library of Congress’s Asian Collection; Harvard University’s Widener Library has 15 times as many books (and that’s not including the entire system); the National Library of Iran, housed not far from where Alexander himself died, has 30 times the volumes than did that ancient collection. The number of books held by the Library of Alexandria would have been perfectly respectable in the collection of a small midwestern liberal arts college. By contrast, according to physicist Barak Shoshany on a Quora question, if the 5 zettabytes of the Internet were to be printed, then the resultant stack of books would have to fit on a shelf “4×10114×1011 km or about 0.04 light years thick,” the last volume floating somewhere near the Oort Cloud. Substantially larger shelves would be needed, it goes without saying, than whatever was kept in the storerooms of Alexandria with that cool Mediterranean breeze curling the edges of those papyri.
To read all of those scrolls, codices, and papyri at Alexandria would take our intrepid ideal reader a measly 1,370 years to get through. More conservative historians estimate that the Library of Alexandria may have housed only 40,000 books—if that is the case, then it would take you a little more than a century to read (if you’re still breezing through a book a day). That’s theoretically the lifetime of someone gifted with just a bit of longevity. All of this numeric stuff misses the point, though. It’s all just baseball card collecting, because what the Library of Alexandria represented—accurately or not—was the dream that it might actually be possible to know everything worth knowing. But since the emergence of modernity some half-millennia ago, and the subsequent fracturing of disciplines into ever more finely tuned fields of study, it’s been demonstrated just how much of a fantasy that goal is. There’s a certain disposition that’s the intellectual equivalent of Alexander, and our culture has long celebrated that personality type—the Renaissance Man (and it always seems gendered thus). Just as there was always another land to be conquered over the next mountain range, pushing through the Kush and the Himalayan foothills, so too does the Renaissance Man have some new type of knowledge to master, say geophysics or the conjugation of Akkadian verbs. Nobody except for Internet cranks or precocious and delusional autodidacts actually believes in complete mastery of all fields of knowledge anymore; by contrast, for all that’s negative about graduate education, one clear and unironic benefit is that it taught me the immensity and totality of all of the things that I don’t know.
Alexandria’s destruction speaks to an unmistakable romance about that which we’ll never be able to read, but it also practically says something about a subset of universal completism—our ability to read everything that has survived from a given historical period. By definition it’s impossible to actually read all of classical literature, since the bulk of it is no longer available, but to read all of Greek and Roman writing which survives—that is doable. It’s been estimated that less than one percent of classical literature has survived to the modern day, with Western cultural history sometimes reading as a story of both luck and monks equally preserving that inheritance. It would certainly be possible for any literate individual to read all of Aristophanes’s plays, all of Plato’s dialogues, all of Juvenal’s epigrams. Harvard University Press’s venerable Loeb Classical Library, preserving Greek and Latin literature in their distinctive minimalist green and red covered volumes, currently has 530 titles available for purchase. Though it doesn’t encompass all that survives from the classical period, it comes close. An intrepid and dogged reader would be able to get through them, realistically, in a few years (comprehension is another matter).
If you need to budget your time, all of Anglo-Saxon writing that survives, that which didn’t get sewn into the back-binding of some inherited English psalm book or found itself as kindling in the 16th century when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, is contained across some four major poetic manuscripts, though 100 more general manuscripts endure. The time period that I’m a specialist in, which now goes by the inelegant name of the “early modern period” but which everybody else calls the “Renaissance,” is arguably marked as the first time period for which no scholar would be capable of reading every primary source that endures. Beneficiary of relative proximity to our own time, and a preponderance of titles gestated through the printing press, it would be impossible for anyone to read everything produced in those centuries. For every William Shakespeare play, there are hundreds of yellowing political pamphlets about groups with names like “Muggletonians;” for every John Milton poem, a multitude of religious sermons on subjects like double predestination. You have to be judicious in what you choose to read, since one day you’ll be dead. This reality should be instrumental in any culture wars détente—canons exist as a function of pragmatism.
The canon thus functions as a kind of short-cut to completism (if you want to read through all of the Penguin Classics editions with their iconic black covers and their little avian symbol on the cover, that’s a meager 1,800 titles to get through). Alexandria’s delusion about gathering all of that which has been written, and perhaps educating oneself from that corpus, drips down through the history of Western civilization. We’ve had no shortage of Renaissance Men who, even if they hadn’t read every book ever written, perhaps at least roughly know where all of them could be found in the card catalogue. Aristotle was a polymath who not only knew the location of those works, but credibly wrote many of them (albeit all that remains are student lecture notes), arguably the founder of fields as diverse as literary criticism to dentistry. In the Renaissance, whereby it could be assumed that the attendant Renaissance Man would be most celebrated, there was a preponderance of those for whom it was claimed that they had mastered all disciplines that could be mastered (and were familiar with the attendant literature review). Leonardo da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, Athanasius Kircher, Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz have all been configured as Renaissance Men, their writings respectively encompassing not just art, mathematics, theology, physics, and philosophy, but also aeronautics, gambling, sinology, occultism, and diplomacy as well.
Stateside both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (a printer and a book collector) are classified as such, and more recently figures as varied as Nikola Tesla and Noam Chomsky are sometimes understood as transdisciplinary polymaths (albeit ones for whom it would be impossible to have read all that can be read, even if it appears as such). Hard to disentangle the canonization of such figures from the social impulse to be “well read,” but in the more intangible and metaphysical sense, beyond wanting to seem smart because you want to seem smart, the icon of the Renaissance Man can’t help but appeal to that completism, that desire for immortality that is prodded by the anxiety that libraries inculcate in me. My patron saint of polymaths is the 17th-century German Jesuit Kircher, beloved by fabulists from Eco to Jorge Louis Borges, for his writings that encompassed everything from mathematics to hieroglyphic translation. Paula Findlen writes in the introduction to her anthology Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything that he was the “greatest polymath of an encyclopedic age,” yet when his rival Renaissance Man Leibnitz first dipped into the voluminous mass of Kirchermania he remarked that the priest “understands nothing.”
Really, though, that’s true of all people. I’ve got a PhD and I can’t tell you how lightbulbs work (unless they fit into Puritan theology somehow). Kircher’s translations of Egyptian were almost completely and utterly incorrect. As was much of what else he wrote on, from minerology to Chinese history. He may have had an all-encompassing understanding of all human knowledge during that time period, but Kircher wasn’t right very often. That’s alright, the same criticism could be leveled at his interlocutor Leibnitz. Same as it ever was, and applicable to all of us. We’re not so innocent anymore, the death of the Renaissance Man is like the death of God (or of a god). The sheer amount of that which is written, the sheer number of disciplines that exist to explain every facet of existence, should disavow us of the idea that there’s any way to be well-educated beyond the most perfunctory meaning of that phrase. In that gulf between our desire to know and the poverty of our actual understanding are any number of mythic figures who somehow close that gap; troubled figures from Icarus to Dr. Faustus who demonstrate the hubris of wishing to read every book, to understand every idea. A term should exist for the anxiety that those examples embody, the quacking fear before the enormity of all that we don’t know. Perhaps the readerly dilemma, or even textual anxiety.
A full accounting of the nature of this emotion compels me to admit that it goes beyond simply fearing that I’ll never be able to read all of the books in existence, or in some ideal library, or if I’m being honest even in my own library. The will towards completism alone is not the only attribute of textual anxiety, for a not dissimilar queasiness can accompany related (though less grandiose) activities than the desire to read all books that were ever written. To whit—sometimes I’ll look at the ever-expanding pile of books that I’m to read, including volumes that I must read (for reviews or articles) and those that I want to read, and I’m paralyzed by that ever-growing paper cairn. Such debilitation isn’t helpful; the procrastinator’s curse is that it’s a personality defect that’s the equivalent of emotional quicksand. To this foolish inclination towards completism—desiring everything and thus acquiring nothing—I sometimes use Francis Bacon’s claim from his essays of 1625 that “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly,” as a type of mantra against textual anxiety, and it mostly works. Perhaps I should learn to cross-stitch it as a prayer to display amongst my books, which even if I haven’t read all of them, they’ve at least been opened (mostly).
But textual anxiety manifests itself in a far weirder way, one that I think gets to the core of what makes the emotion so disquieting. When I’m reading some book that I happen to be enjoying, some random novel picked up from the library or purchased at an airport to pass the time, but not the works that I perennially turn toward—Walt Whitman and John Milton, John Donne and Emily Dickinson—I’m sometimes struck with a profound melancholy born from the fact that I shall never read these sentences again. Like meeting a friendly stranger who somehow indelibly marks your life by the tangible reality of their being, but whom will return to anonymity. Then it occurs to me that even those things I do read again and again, Leaves of Grass and Paradise Lost, I will one day also read for the last time. What such textual anxiety trades in, like all things of humanity, is my fear of finality, of extinction, of death. That’s at the center of this, isn’t it? The simultaneous fear of there being no more worlds to conquer and the fear that the world never can be conquered. Such consummation, the obsession with having it all, evidences a rather immature countenance.
It’s that Alexandrian imperative, but if there is somebody wiser and better to emulate it’s the old cynic Diogenes of Sinope, the philosophical vagabond who spent his days living in an Athenian pot. Laertius reports in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers that “When [Diogenes] was sunning himself…Alexander came and stood over him and said: ‘Ask me for anything you want.’ To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light.’” And so, the man with everything was devoid of things to give to the man with nothing. Something indicative of that when it comes to this fear that there are things you’ll never be able to read, things you’ll never be able to know. The point, Diogenes seems to be saying, is to enjoy the goddamn light. Everything in that. I recall once admitting my fear about all that I don’t know, all of those books that I’ll never open, to a far wiser former professor of mine. This was long before I understood that an education is knowing what you don’t know, understanding that there are things you will never know, and worshiping at the altar of your own sublime ignorance. When I explained this anxiety of all of these rows and rows of books to never be opened, she was confused. She said “Don’t you see? That just means that you’ll never run out of things to read.” Real joy, it would seem, comes in the agency to choose, for if you were able to somehow give your attention equally to everything than you’d suffer the omniscient imprisonment that only God is cursed with. The rest of us are blessed with the endless, regenerative, confusing, glorious, hidden multiplicity of experience in discrete portions. Laertius writes “Alexander is reported to have said ‘Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.