In practical terms, something might as well be infinite as finite but beyond our capabilities – it matters not to us as individuals whether the universe is infinitely large, or simply larger than we could possibly perceive or conceive. Except as an abstract point of argument, these two situations are indistinguishable. So it is with the problem I face in what to read. In the twentieth century, the number of books that had been printed escalated to the point that for the first time in human history it was impossible for any one person to have read them all. It is as if our libraries transformed themselves into infinite spaces, shelves without end bearing books without end.
When I look at the list of books sat on my 'waiting list', I find many things I'd like to read but haven't found the time or reason to justify. If everything I have even thought about reading were upon this list, it would be too daunting to tackle it at all, for it would take me hours to read even the titles of the books that would qualify. At the moment, the bulk of my reading is within philosophy, but even within this single field of enquiry I cannot hope to achieve anything close to comprehensive philology. (And to be honest, I do not want to be condemned to read solely philosophy for the rest of my life, since I do have other interests). Some things have to be excluded –but what, and how shall I demark my area of interest? By domain, excluding (say) epistemology and logic in order to focus on (say) ethics and metaphysics? By era, excluding (as I have done thus far) anything prior to Descartes? By author, perhaps preferring the dead to the living on the practical grounds that this choice excludes the greatest number of books?
I am trapped in the infinite library, trying to find my way out whilst carrying an every heavier burden of bound volumes that continually threaten to trap me in the stacks forever. That no-one else seems to be in the same situation only adds to the sense of anxiety – what do they know that I do not? Or perhaps, what is it that they do not know that I might also get away without knowing? Why, ultimately, must I acquiesce to the necessity of knowing at all? Plenty of people live perfectly contentedly without one iota of the pointless trivia I have accumulated over my meagre lifetime. Yet still, I am compelled to read more, to learn more. The obvious course of action – to stop reading – appeals to the Buddhist in me, but I think there are few things I should find as hard to give up as books.
So it is that I wander the shelves of the infinite library in the eternal pursuit of the impossible hope that I might someday have read enough...