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Library Theory: From Borges to Bayard

In a fascinating essay on information policy, James Grimmelmann gives us this quote from Borges on the “perfect librarian:”

On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

This recalls Sergey Brin’s famous quote that the ideal search engine would be like the mind of God.

Finding inspiration in Musil, Pierre Bayard offers the following sobering take on mere mortals’ experience:

[Our inevitable] encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain encouragement not to read at all. Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain?

Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

I basically find I do two types of reading: instrumental and developmental.  The instrumental reading is designed back up points I want to make in writing.  The developmental reading helps me think about what points I want to make.  It’s hard to balance the two–but Bayard’s point about the infinite rejection entailed by particular choices keeps the seriousness of the balance in focus.