Library as universe

Umberto Eco points out that there are two model libraries. The first is found in the sixteenth-century classic novel Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, wherein the ideal library contains all the books necessary for understanding the universe. In contrast, Jorge Luis Borges — in his short story “Library of Babel” — presents us with an “infinite” library of unfathomable size, its content impossible to read and comprehend because it is alway growing and incomplete. The latter is a nightmare, a labrynith of countless rooms and corridors, while Don Quixote’s library is doubtless small and cozy, its contents easy to find and peruse.

Of course, the library is a metaphor for the universe and for our comprehension — or apprehension — of reality. Is not our world and the explosion of information and the complexity of scenarios for life and suffering and death not unlike Borges’ library? But is not our deepest wish and desire to reside in that eremetic hut of Quixote’s library? Is the universe numbing, baffling, fearful, and do we go about contriving a universe that suits our temperament? Or is the universe comprehensible and single-pointed, understandable or at least appreciable with a calm mind and quiet reflection? Or is it, well, a little more complex than either scenario? For the true solitary, these are the pressing questions.

The universe accomodates but does not consume. It scintillates but does not glare. It undulates but does not inundate. If the books in this library are many and infinite, they are so many cells or atoms or patterns of energy, ultimately responding to a grand field that relates all content together. The mind of God cannot be reduced to a cell (the biological variety), nor be circumscribed to fit our logic. That is only because our logic is so puny.

We cherish a small, clean room — “cell” to use the pun — bright but not glaringly so, comfortable but provocative of reflection. We cherish it not because we would renounce all knowledge or reduce it to one book (like the caliph of legend). We are spectators of diversity and appreciate the animation of beings and the interconnectedness of all things. We know the universe not directly but, as Thomas Aquinas might have put it, through its effects. It is as if we read the books in Quixote’s library or even a few in Borges’ but never know who the author is, nor do we think that we must read more than whatever resonates with our soul. Nor does it matter how much or how little we read because we are all of us the author, and all of us the reader. We echo the hermit’s sentiment: “My hut a universe!”