At the start of the year, high season for reading lists and resolutions, Alain de Botton tweeted: ‘Some 130 million books have been published in history; a big reader will get through 6,000 in a lifetime. Choose carefully…’
While just half of the 12,000 volumes of the library in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, this is already a tall order. With the average Australian lifespan as of 2016 sitting somewhere around 82 years, supposing one reads books from the age of 12, this allows for 70 years of reading; that is 86 books a year, or around 7 books a month – still no small task. (That is, unless each of those 6000 books was loaned from Biblioteca Blanca, an installation piece by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto which was originally conceived for Galería Nogueras Blanchard in Barcelona and has found a home in the permanent collection at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, via exhibits in Singapore, Venice, and Austria. Each of the 6000 blank books are contained with a library as white as their bare pages.)
Could the 6000 books be reduced to a more manageable number? French poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud once proposed the following formula for maintaining an ideal book collection; by his working, 1 of 361 works: K + X > 361 > K – Z, where K = 361, X = a newly acquired book, and Z = a previously owned and since-relinquished book. While this formula amounts to a collection of books currently owned, rather than exhaustive cumulative tally of books read, it does at least set in our sights a number more manageable.
That is, until we begin to consider the contents of such a library. Roubaud was a member of the Oulipo – a workshop for potential literature founded in 1960s France and still active today – and would therefore be expected to have at least a handful of works by fellow Oulipians in his library. No doubt something by Georges Perec, who wrote of Roubaud’s K + X > 361 > K – Z formula in an essay titled ‘Brief Notes on the Art & Craft of Sorting Books’; or perhaps from the inaugural American inductee, Harry Mathews, whose passing in January will not relinquish him of membership. Roubaud’s book collection, like my own, almost certainly contained some version of Cent mille milliards de poèmes [A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems], a slim and paradoxically expansive volume of poetry by Oulipo founder Raymond Queneau.
A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems comprises Queneau’s formidable attempt to exhaust the sonnet. A masterwork of combinatorial poetic potential, it consists of 10 sonnets across 10 pages, wherein each line in each of the 10 sonnets is interchangeable with any of the other lines. Taking the first line, there are 10 alternatives or possibilities for that line, and following that selection, the same can be said for the second line, which sets up 102, or 100, possible combinations of the first 2 lines alone. Add to that the third line (10 x 100 or 103) … And so on … By the time the sonnet is completed, there are 1014, or 100 million million, combinations of 14 lines.
Most startling and pertinent to the current considerations is Queneau’s calculation that someone reading the poem for 24 hours a day would require 190,258,751 years to finish reading it in all possible permutations. Such calculations leave the average reader 190,258,681 years shy of any hope of reading the book in its entirety.
And even then all one would have read would be poetry – no autobiographies, abecedariums or anthologies; no biographies; no cookbooks or ‘collected works’; no dramas or diaries; no encyclopedias; no folktales, fantasy novels, farces or fabliaux; no grimoires or graphic novels; no horror or history books, hagiographies or hornbooks; no incunabula or illuminated manuscripts; no journals or joke books or jeremiads; no künstlerromans, nothing Kafkaesque; no librettos, lampoons, letters or legends; no melodramas, monographs, memoirs, mysteries, miscellanies or Menippean satires; no novels, novellas, novelettes or non-fiction; no odes or orihons; no prayer or picture books, picaresques, prosimetrums or parables; no qasidas or quantum fiction; no romances or Roman à clefs; no Scandinavian noir, science-fiction, satire, short stories or Shakespeare(!); no thrillers, threnodies, travel writing, tragedies, textbooks, tracts, or trade paperbacks; no utopian fiction; no variorums, vignettes, vers libre or verse novels; no wimmelbilderbuchs, war novels, Westerns, whore dialogues or wuxia; no Xenophanic verse or Xanaduistic works; no yarns, yearbooks or young adult novels; no zines or zarzuelas …
Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library Of Babel proposes a library-as-universe consisting of an enormous expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms, each containing four walls of bookshelves. The shelves hold a series of volumes, each 410 pages by 40 lines by 80 characters, or 410 x 40 x 80 = 1 312 000 characters. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the books contain every possible ordering of just 25 basic characters (22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space) within their pages.
As such, in theory, every sentence ever written, and yet to be written, already exists within the pages of the library. As Pablo M Ruiz observes: ‘If time condescends to being infinite, then all and every one of those passages will someday, inevitably, signify …’ In his 1939 essay ‘The Total Library’, precursor to his short story, Borges describes the dream of the universal library:
Everything will be in its blind volumes. Everything: the minute history of the future, The Egyptians of Aeschylus, the precise number of times the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true name of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and daydreams in the dawn of the 14th of August in 1934, the demonstration of Pierre Fermat’s theory, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language of the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley cerebrated concerning time and never published, Urizen’s books of iron, the premature epiphanies of Stephen Daedelus which before a cycle of 1000 years will signify nothing, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the song the sirens sang, the faithful catalogue of the Library, the demonstration of the fallacy of that catalogue …
In short, everything that one would miss while attempting an exhaustive reading of Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The philosopher and logician Willard Van Orman Quine, in an essay titled ‘Universal Library’, makes the reductionist argument that the Library of Babel can be constructed in its entirety simply by writing a dot on one piece of paper and a dash on another. These two sheets of paper could then be alternated at random to produce every possible text, in Morse code or equivalently binary.
Taking a vastly different approach is writer and programmer Jonathan Basile, who has designed a digital Library of Babel, an elephantine e-book. So if the library contains everything ever written, or yet to be written, perhaps it has the final part of this essay, a solution of sorts to de Botton’s dilemma.
In the library I operate the search function, entering the text from de Botton’s tweet (somewhat adapted to account for the absence of numerals in the text) and nominate matches with random English words. In Volume 28 on Shelf 3 of Wall 2 of a Hexagon with a title too long to list  I find the following:
Choose carefully … bookstands cryptanalytic smeltery prebuying irreversibilities
And in Volume 12 on Shelf 3 of Wall 4 of another Hexagon with a ludicrously long title  I find these words:
Choose carefully … uncanninesses passalong smudging specular mummification convenors organized
- Again … :
Image: Pinwheel Galaxy / Wikimedia