The Infinite Lines Connecting All Books

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“As I crouch among these heaps of books — awkwardly, since at any moment a tower of delicately balanced volumes might fall on me or crash beyond easy retrieval — my hands and eyes move among pages encountered at ran­dom. In a few moments I will have seized on words from a dozen different books. They come upon me like the patches of hieroglyphs in a tomb revealed by the swaying of an ar­chaeologist’s lamp.

The rhythm is alternately staccato and oceanic, a suc­cession of bee stings or a calm breeze from an unseen shore. By turns I’m lost, I seek, I find, I drop the thread again. Voic­es bark out phrases, then slam as quickly into silence. Maps are delineated in air. Lines of connection link up dissimilar objects and then break off. Meanings crawl around and then abruptly scatter like insects caught in a flashlight’s beam.

What I am engaged in calls ideally for the juxtaposition of many books: the jumbled innards of a cupboard, the accumulations of a basement of an attic or a crammed shop filthy with age. Only by switching without interruption and as rapidly as possible can I appreciate the space dividing one book from the next and with any luck catch a glimpse of the potentially infinite lines connecting them. I eavesdrop on the murmur of overlapping conversations. It’s almost as if the books read each other, the way characters in novels read novels. I merely stand among them and read over their shoulders as characters in Raymond Chandler novels read Proust and Hemingway, characters in Henry James novels read novels by Paul Bourget, certain characters in Dostoevsky read the Bible while other charac­ters in Dostoevsky read Bakunin, characters in Jane Austen read Mrs. Radcliffe, Don Quixote reads Amadis de Gaula, characters in The Tale of Genji read poems written by other characters in The Tale of Genji, characters in Dante spend an eternity in Hell remembering a book they read once.

But however absorbing it might be to get lost in the crisscrossing threads, it is the gaps, the blind pockets, the abrupt curtailments that are most bracing. Step into the hole and you’ve landed in a shuttered chamber, a snug dead end of the labyrinth. Nothing exists but the arbitrary contents of a stranger’s hotel room: a razor, a ticket stub, a crumpled half-finished letter. The known universe is reduced to the dimensions of a detective novel by Freeman Wills Crofts.”

From the essay The Browser’s Ecstasy (2000) from the book of the same name by Geoffrey O’Brien, author, poet, and critic. He serves as editor-in-chief of the highly regarded Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature. To date, the Library of America, founded in 1979, has published more than 300 high-quality volumes of America’s most important authors, like William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Jack London to mention a few.

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