04 June, 2008

Yet the sea is not full

In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind—not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away.

Furthermore, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages—all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel—was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum—that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one's own account and that of one's friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years—will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore—if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty—the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,—a number not, perhaps, above five per cent* of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions)—allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand.

— Thomas de Quincey, 'On Languages' (1823)

* De Quincey estimates that 20,000 is 5% of the number of books published in Europe during a period of sixty years. In other words, in 60 years, there would be 400,000 new books: a rate of 6,667 per year. In 2007, according to theBookseller.com, 115,420 new books were published in the UK, and a projected 276,649 in the US—not including print-on-demand. Thus, at the current rate of publishing, and at De Quincey's pessimistic final figure of 5,000 books really possible to read in a lifetime, a Briton like myself can estimate his total accomplishment as 0.000722% of the number published at home during his adult life—possibly about the percentage of those books worth reading. But what chance freedom now?


John Cowan said...

Freedom is what you make it to be. I can't possibly shake hands with all the other six billion people in the world either, but what of it?

Anonymous said...

שאם יהיו כל הימים דיו וכל קנים קולמוסים וכל בני אדם לבלרין אינן יכולין לכתוב כל מה שקריתי ושניתי ומה ששמשתי לחכמים בישיבה ולא חסרתי אלא כאדם שטובל אצבעו בים

"If all the seas were ink, and all the reeds were quills, and all the men were scribes, it would still be impossible to write all that I have read and learned and put into practise from my masters in the academy; and yet, I have not taken from them even as much as a man who dips his finger in the ocean"
- ARN 25:3

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I wrote that hastily as I was on my way out to lunch. That was Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the source is Abot deRebi Natan 25:3. There is apparantly a better quote, to the same effect, by his master but I couldn't find it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Would that be a metaphorical ocean (ie. Ain Soph)? Otherwise it doesn't seem a very rabbinical, or even Jewish, sentiment.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean, sorry? I understand this as meaning that the quantity removed from the ocean by the dipping of a finger is as paltry compared to the ocean as is the amount that Eliezer ben Hyrcanus learnt from his masters compared to all they knew.

From that perspective, it's actually a very Rabbinic sentiment (leastways, it is typical of various other sentiments that are expressed in the Talmud concerning the decline of the generations).

I like it because, like you (as you seem to express in this post), I am also somewhat wowed by the quantity that there is to learn and I enjoy these sorts of hyperbolic indications of that quantity.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sorry Simon, in my early-morning blear I misread your quote as saying that one can never learn as much from books as from the world itself (eg. the ocean). I see my mistake now.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the last man to claim to have read every book ever written was Sir Thomas Browne, in 16-something?
That's quite a while ago. We should be content just to read a few good ones, I think.
Would you want to see every film ever made? I don't expect so.

Raminagrobis said...

Of making many books there is no end, as the man said -- and trying to read them all is bad for your health (carnis adflictio est).

Anonymous said...


If you write in sand
you saduce transience itself;
the wind carries your song
throughout the desert.

If you write in water
all the dust from your senses
is removed and you can dive
to the first doors of self;

saved in its cradle
verses are the play of waves,

the silence of fish the secret of song.

If you write on the sky
the stars are your dots, commas,
the chirping of birds the constancy of hope,
clouds - the mirracle of change.

If you write only with a pencil, you'll have to wait in the trap of restlessnes
for the paper to rott.

And no one will know what you dreamed.

Shawn Thuris said...

Don't worry. In thirty years the swarm of nano-robots milling about in the foyer of your cranium will be able to quickly access, download and present to you, unmediated, any knowledge to be found in any book. All the most garish claims of advertisements for sleep-learning, speed-reading, super-memory and perfect pitch will be multiplied exponentially into ludicrously hyperbolic prose...

And yet this, or something just a few orders of magnitude less grandiose, will surely become available.

And then we can keep the good writing ever-fresh in our memories and willfully erase the bad.