As the title makes clear, I do think twice now before studying in SML, as opposed to not thinking at all, which was my previous policy. The reason is not something I can explain in two lines, but involves an incident that occurred there a short time ago, which I will now relate.
It was the night before a midterm exam, and I was exhaustively going over my notes in one of the desks among the stacks on the 6th floor. At around nine thirty I decided to go home, not because I thought I had done enough studying, but because the library, unfortunately, closes at nine forty-five during the summer. So I packed my books, and headed to the small staircase near the elevator (without leaving the stacks). I plodded down the stairs as I had done many times before. 6M, 6, 5M, 5, 4M, 4...each level came and went. After a while I stopped paying attention to the levels, but noticed that I had been walking down stairs for quite a while. It was sort of funny at first. Maybe I was slow after all the studying I had done. But then, out of curiosity, I began to count each flight I went down. It got somewhat monotonous, but after I’d counted 25 it struck me, (a little late of course), that there aren’t 25 floors in Sterling. Rather a lot less.
It was still somewhat amusing at this point but after counting another 25, and still not reaching anything in particular, became progressively less so. In fact you could say it was beginning to become severely strange. After walking down 50 more flights of stairs, (and getting very exhausted), I noticed that I had finally reached bottom. There were no more stairs, and as soon as that happened, the staircase I had used disappeared. This was not particularly encouraging, I have to say. It was rather dimly lit, and I must have been dizzy as well, because the first thing I did was bump into an old man holding an enormous pile of books, all of which he dropped.
“I am so sorry” I managed, crouching down to pick them up for him.
“Quite all right” he croaked, swiveling his glassy eyes in my direction.
His appearance was a bit unsettling, or maybe it was just the time of day. Glassy eyes and long gnarly fingers are usually fine during the daytime.
“Listen” I started, “would you mind telling me what floor this is, and where the exit is?”
He looked somewhat annoyed. “The devil knows what floor this is, and since you are so inclined to be wondering, there is absolutely no way to get out of here”.
I laughed. “Is that so. I might inform you that I have been to Sterling many times, and have gotten out each time, without exception.”
“Sterling? What is that? Oh, wait, yes, in fact I have heard of it. Tiny place where they keep a few books. Why you bring it up I don’t know”.
“Because we are in sterling now, both of us”, I interjected, “and I wouldn’t call it tiny either. There are some four million books here“.
He sniggered hollowly. “ It might interest you to know then, that in this library, of which I am the sole and honorary librarian, there are an infinite number of books”, and he made a clumsy gesture that attempted to encompass all of the gloomy aisles surrounding us with one sweep. “And not only that, but none of them have actually been written yet. Yes my dear, I am sorry to say that you are very far from Sterling.” And he busied himself with balancing the large pile of books he was holding.
“Well…I’m not sure I understand.”
“Good. Because if you did understand, which I do, it wouldn’t speak very well of your sanity”.
He began walking down a long, dank, and formlessly stretching aisle, whose end never grew closer, no matter how far he went, and as I followed him, I began to think that maybe it didn’t end.
“Ok. So then how did I get here?” I asked, trying to keep up with him.
“That would be an interesting question, except that I’m not interested in it. A few people have come here in the past. They all died here. And not of old age mind you. If I liked to give advice, which, incidentally, I don’t, I would advise you not to read any of the books”.
“Because, not only have none of them been written, there are even stranger kinds, like this aisle here that we are walking through, which is composed of books that have no intention of ever being written. Then there are books that might have been written but weren’t, books that could perhaps be written in the future, books that it would be impossible for anyone to ever write--well you should understand my meaning by now. All in all a lot of things you read here can be unsettling, or they can be devastating, or any number of other things. And I would know. Its best not to read them”.
“All right. That’s fascinating, but how do I get out?”
“Will you put an end to this pestering? Wretched botheration! I told you there is no way out. Or in for that matter. Therefore I wipe my hands off how you could have gotten here in the first place. Take this pile of books, and help me sort.” He dumped an enormous stack of books into my hands, and as the dust rose in plumes continued, “it used to be that I would make everyone who came here slave for me day and night, but then they all went and got lost somewhere and read some crazy books, and were never seen again. Now I don’t go in for that anymore”.
“Well isn’t that nice to hear” I said. But since I didn’t know what else to do, I figured I might as well get to know the place a little by shelving some books. “Right then. Where do these belong?”
“Can’t you see the numbers on the back? See this little scroll,” and he unfurled an endlessly winding scroll on the back of one of the books, which was full of small numbers neatly printed, “this tells you where to put the book. Right. You need to walk 15 miles in that direction” and he pointed vaguely to the left, “after which you take the stairs down 300 flights, and then, proceed to the right for another 20 miles”. I must have had my mouth open in shock because he snapped sharply, “stop staring. I did warn you that there are an infinite number of books, didn’t I? If you don’t want to help me, don’t. But then go and get lost on your own, because I have no interest in talking with you.”
I pulled myself together to say, “I will get to work immediately, but first, since you say there is no exit, is there at least a place to sleep? Since I am rather tired, and I do have a midterm tomorrow”. He gave me a withering glance, and ignored my question. I tried again. “Well, even you have to sleep from time to time, don’t you?” His answer was short and clipped.
“No. As a matter of fact I never sleep.”
“Really? You’ll forgive me for asking, but then, can you even be alive?”
“That is not something I like to discuss, understand? You are beginning to irritate me, so will you go and lose yourself or go mad or something, or not?”
I glanced down at the pile of books I was holding, and took my breath in sharply, “hey!” I cried, “hey, this is written by me!”
He groaned. “Yes. And what of it? You may or may not ever write this book. Isn’t this what I have been trying to explain to you?”
I barely heard him as I looked over the book and read the title, “On the Proper Care and Raising of Radishes”.
“Well” I began, indignant, “this book, I can assure you has absolutely no intention whatsoever of ever being written!”.
He rolled his glassy eyes, “yes, and that’s why there is a long number on the back which indicates where it must be shelved, together with other books, that will also never be written”.
He had clearly given up on me.
So I started out in the direction he had indicated, noticing the place where the stairs which I had come down from would have been. All I could see for miles around were endlessly stretching, dusty, winding aisles of ghostly books. This was becoming a bit depressing.
The aisles twisted and turned so that after a few minutes of walking I could no longer see the librarian. How would I know, anyway, when I’d walked 15 miles?
Far off in the distance I saw clouds of dust and pages flying. As I got closer I began to sneeze, and through the thick air I could make out a number of books that appeared to be fighting with each other. At least actual books are not so rowdy, I thought to myself. I looked up to see that the shelves stretched on to enormous heights, and through the dust I could make out spiraling staircases crookedly enmeshed in the creaking shelves.
I had walked for a few hours, when I really began to get drowsy. By the time I had started on the 300 flights of stairs I was seriously considering dropping the books and going to sleep right where I was. 50 flights down I did just that. But however much I tried, I was surprised to find that I could not fall asleep. Strangely enough, the more I tried, the less tired I became. It was rather odd, but eventually I picked up the books and kept going.
Then, believe it or not, I had an idea. If, as the librarian insisted, there was no way to get out of this library, then, clearly, there had never been a book written about how to find one’s way out of the library. Hence, this library was the place where one could find such a book. It made perfect sense, the only problem being, of course, that it would be difficult to find a specific book among an infinite number of them.
My meditations on this subject were interrupted by a sudden slip of my foot on the uneven stairs, which sent the pile of books in my hands crashing down and myself after them. Badly bruised as this left me, in the end it turned out to have been a fortunate occurrence. Because after I had fallen down the staircase and crashed right into a bookshelf placed near it, and upset hundreds of books that proceeded to fall on top of me, I suddenly heard the thin tinkle of what seemed like a music box. After digging myself out from the pile of books on top of me, I eagerly looked around for a possible source of this sound. It turned out that one of the books that had fallen from the shelf had landed on the floor, opened, and inside it was a music box. I closed the book, and the music stopped.
The cover was tattered, and it was impossible to make out a title. I began to flip through the pages that were on both sides of the small music box, and it did seem rather dull. But I was sure the that the music box inside it was no coincidence, and that it might have some kind of bearing on my current situation.
And then, sure enough, a passage caught my eye, “and it is said that there are certain places that are entered by falling asleep, and are exited by waking up (such as dreams). Conversely, there are other places that are entered by waking up, and exited by falling asleep. An example of the latter would be, as we all know, the infinite library.” Well, I had certainly struck gold. The problem here was that I had tried to fall asleep, and found it strangely impossible. But I flipped ahead to read the following “going back to our previous example, that of the infinite library, it is known that the only way to exit is to fall asleep, however, it is equally well known that it is impossible to fall asleep in this place due to the fact that one must wake up to get in at all. There is of course, no solution to this dilemma, and hence we will provide one here, since it is certainly impossible that anyone would ever write this book. The only thing that needs to be done to fall asleep is to play the music box attached to the middle of this book, and within a few minutes, one will surely fall asleep”.
Well, of course I didn’t think twice, but promptly opened the book to the middle and set the music box playing, after which I gradually drifted to sleep. As soon as I had fallen asleep, I found myself perfectly wide awake, in the stacks. I saw a girl looking at some books, and I ran up to her urgently. She was holding a book, which I none too politely snatched, “excuse me, but has this book actually been written? By an actual person, who actually wrote it?”
She gave me one stupefied look, and then offered “uh…do you want to get coffee or something?”