If you want a quick reminder of how much there is to know, and how much there is that you’ll never know, then any given hour on the Internet will probably do the trick.
You begin reading an article on glaciers, which is linked to a story on polar bears, which is connected to a story on koala bears, which leads to an opinion piece on the Australian parliament. You can spend an hour, a week or a lifetime reading this way, and never get to the bottom of it.
Websurfing always reminds me of what John Muir said about the relatedness of understanding: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
I’m not quite sure that my teenage children, who grew up in Internet culture and have never known any other world, have quite grasped the sheer infinitude of the information that they’re pointing and clicking through on any given day. The Internet offers its wonders screen view by screen view, so it’s a bit like looking out a train window. You see your journey one sight at a time, but the episodic perspective doesn’t really hint at the long, seemingly endless epic you’ve undertaken.
The only way I can try to understand the overwhelming architectural scale of human knowledge is to start by thinking of information as I have always done — in physical form, within the pages of a traditional book.
As books amass on shelves or sales counters, you begin to see how small you are — how small any single person is — within the vast cathedral of collected wisdom.
I’ve felt as much when walking through certain libraries, or when gathering with other readers at events such as the Friends of the LSU Library Book Bazaar this month. The annual used book sale attracts bibliophiles from across south Louisiana, and it opened this year on the first day of spring, when the region’s bookworms probably should have been out in the sun, turning a spade or hoe instead of burying themselves in second-hand novels.
But book lovers are a notoriously impractical lot, which is why, on entering the sale that’s held each year at a small barn on the university’s campus, you can always see patrons stuffing grocery bags with paperbacks and hardcovers, herniating their backs as they lumber toward the checkout table.
I had gone in search of a small volume of W.H. Auden’s poems, swearing I wouldn’t buy anything else, but one of the small joys of the sale is that you discover books you had no idea existed. How could I know, for example, that someone had thought to bind all of young Mark Twain’s letters from Hawaii between covers?
I bought the Twain correspondence, along with humor writing from James Thurber and some essays by Samuel Johnson, the tireless talker of 18th century London.
Whether I will ever get around to reading them is anybody’s guess.