A fable inspired by Ruth Beale’s week at Fig-2
Young Penrose had reached his bottom. He was trying to write a book, but it wasn’t going well. When he looked at the growing piles of notes he had amassed, he felt like crying, and he was crying now. The book was going to be called The Mythology of Keys. It was an attempt to reconstruct the underlying story common to all stories, to excavate the skeleton common to them all, to find the shared meaning that would make sense of all narratives from science to fantasy to homeopathy.
Having run out of cry tissues, he left his desk and went for another of his long walks to clear his head. On this occasion Penrose happened to take a wrong turning in between his garret study and the off licence, and he entered a street he had never seen before. The buildings seemed preternaturally outsized against Penrose’s small frame. He pushed up his spectacles.
He noticed with gothic curiosity that none of the buildings seemed to have doors. There seemed to be the pillars and steps of doorways but no means of entry within. He continued up the dimly lit street and at length found one building that did have a door. There was a brass plaque. He peered at the symbol of an acorn, beneath which were some words written in an unfamiliar alphabet, beneath which he read “THE LIBRARY OF EVERYTHING.”
Penrose started. He knew he had exhausted his own writerly resources in his garret with his smudged Routledge paperbacks and broken lipsticked coffee cups, and he wondered excitedly whether The Library of Everything could hold the key to his Mythology of Keys, which was, if nothing else, a book about everything.
He knocked on the door.
No two words are likely to have a more counterproductive effect in such a situation of rich curiosity than these, especially at the start of a story with the plot barely in motion. Penrose examined the huge wooden door for a viewing hole to indicate whether whoever was inside had even seen him coming. There wasn’t one, nor did the door have an apparent handle.
‘Hello,’ said Penrose to the door, ‘Sorry. I noticed your plaque. The Library of Everything. I’m a bit of a writer,’ adding ‘Trying to be.’
‘We’ve got enough books, thank you! Go away!’
Penrose, pushing up his spectacles, turned to go, ‘I could use some help is all. If this is a Library.’
A panel snapped open in the door, and an elderly face peeped through.
‘What do you mean, if this is a library? Course it’s a library, the plaque says so.’
‘I didn’t mean to be rude. It could be a library that’s closed down and become something else, like a bank or a shoe shop.’
‘A bank or a shoe shop? Does it look like a bank or a shoe shop?’
‘I don’t know what it looks like. It might have been resold.’
‘It’s not a bank, I’ll tell you that. Far from it. Oh the irony.’
‘I’ll be.. getting off then I suppose.’
The face in the door scrutinised Penrose.
‘It wasn’t you that wanted the Necronomicon was it?’
Penrose had never heard of it.
‘I’ve heard of it of course,’ he said, ‘But I’ve never read it, personally.’
‘Of course not. Why would you want to borrow it if you’d read it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Penrose reflected, ‘I might want to refer to it.’
‘Refer to it?’ The face groaned. ‘Writer are you?’
‘Trying to be.’
‘A lot of writers show up here. I always say to them they’d be better off getting some life experience. Then they come in and immediately look it up under ‘L’. Deplorable. So you write do you? What do you write?’
‘I’m writing a book. It’s called The Mythology of Keys. I saw your plaque that said The Library of Everything, and I thought that you might be able to help me out. See, that’s what my book’s about.’
‘Yes, it’s not going very well.’
‘Look, I can’t —’ The face in the door frowned, thought for a second, then said, ‘The Mythology of Keys, you say?’ He sighed, ‘You’d better come in.’
The face clearly belonged to an elderly librarian. The half moon glasses, worn hands, the apron, the shambling gait, and the face itself with its canyon lines that might have needed periodic dusting along with the books, all clearly belonged to the librarians of fiction. Penrose, being a reader, recognised them instantly. Also, this being a library meant that it was in any case more than likely that whoever it was would naturally be a librarian. Penrose also had a gift for logical reasoning.
‘I’m Penrose,’ said Penrose.
The Librarian sniffed, and indicated for Penrose to follow him. He tramped down among the bookless shelves of this corridor whose lighting seemed to have gone out. In pursuit of the Librarian through the dark Penrose tripped and splayed across the wooden floor with a resounding crash.
‘Shhhhhh. Do come along. The Library is this way.’
The Library of Everything is so called because it contains every book that has ever been written and that ever will be written. In the Library of Everything, everything that has ever happened or that ever will happen or even that ever could happen, every tiny possibility is documented among its theoretically infinite volumes and stacks of shelves.
Library historians have marvelled that the reference system used to interrogate and navigate the Library is significantly advanced from the humble old Dewey indexing of the libraries of the past. Unfortunately for scholars the complexity of there being every possible history of everything means that the referencing system is as long as the actual volumes it references. It is in effect a 1:1 map and therefore of no use as a map at all because it is simply a life size replica of a reality. To previous generations of librarians this was the only way to chart the tiny differences between all the different documented realities, but librarianship has moved on.
Scholars have noted that a single ‘reality’ can in all respects be the same as another except that at some point, for example, a deuterium atom undergoes a radioactive decay slightly earlier than its counterpart in another reality. It has been noted in more recent discussions of modern librarianship that the most effective and simplest method of referencing would be an internal relative system – so for example the reference would be ‘the same basic universe as that other universe except that a deuterium atom deteriorates slightly earlier in this one’.
This saves having to replicate the entire universe in order to create a 1:1 reference for that universe. Another argument counters that this system of ‘relative referencing’ would set the reader off on an endless wild goose chase in pursuit of original references that the closer references are referring to, and that by the time you got to the reference you’d have forgotten what you were looking for anyway.
In 1941 the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges published a short semi-fictional account of the Library of Everything, renaming it ‘The Library of Babel’ and generally misrepresenting the fundamental workings of the Library, presenting a fanciful history quite obviously intended to draw attention away from the machinations of the Hermetic Orders, the shady groups who preside over the running of the Library. Since its publication Borges’s piece has tended to be viewed as definitive, a scandalous act of history being rewritten.
‘A scandalous act of history being rewritten,’ said the Librarian to Penrose. ‘As I already told you, it is quite impossible that an Infinite Library of Everything should be so shoddily constructed as Mr Borges makes out. Hexagonal rooms, he says! He even conflates the Library with the Universe, which is balderdash – the library is many times bigger than the universe.’
Penrose was puzzled.
‘How can the library be bigger than the universe? Surely the universe is all there is?’
‘Technically. But really what you’re thinking of is called the multiverse. All of the possible universes.’
‘Wouldnt it be simpler to just call the multiverse the universe?’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. Let me raise it as an Agenda item at the next Learning Technologies Committee meeting.’
The Librarian made a note. Penrose noticed that the Librarian also gave the note a reference, which he then made another note of, before stamping it with a stamp that printed the outline of an acorn.
The Librarian grew expansive.
‘The fact that the Library includes every possible book that could ever possibly be written would be fine, but there is a growing problem. The universe itself only includes some of the possibilities.’
‘Is the universe not just one possibility?’
‘No, you see you’re up against have the Uncertainty Principle. Some parts of a universe comprise several possibilities all at once, you see. According to the Uncertainty Principle it’s not until you measure it, look at it, that the decision is made. At that point the universe branches off from all the others, but for a while it’s like several universes share the same space and matter, like a great cosmic timeshare.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘The problem is that because the Library documents every possible reality in all possible universes it is exponentially larger than the universe. Compared to the vast size of the Library the universe itself looks like a speck of dust, an atom, the amount of a goodness in a politician.’
‘Can anything be done?’
The Librarian looked tired. ‘The main problem is that we can’t afford to house the main library any more on site.’
‘In the universe?’
‘Just so. We’ve had to put together a business case for housing most of the library’s volumes elsewhere.’
Penrose balked, ‘Outside of the universe?’
‘Indeed.’ The Librarian waved his hands indicatively and mumbled, ‘There’s some very competitive non-Euclidean spacetime out beyond the northeastern arc of the universe that we’ve been discussing relocating part or all of the library’s contents to.’ More waving, ‘Several tenders are currently being prepared that look very promising indeed, and by promising I’m afraid I mean cheap.’
Penrose was having trouble following all this but nodded. The Librarian continued.
‘But I’m afraid we’re going to have to face facts at some point. The library is it was originally conceived was a Utopian project. It belongs to another world, I mean, another universe. In this day and age we simply can’t sustain that kind of data management, even with the great advances that have been made in bureaucratization. The Fines Service itself is now three times the size of the universe and the Digitization Project is simply unsustainable.’
‘What’s the Digitization Project?’
‘The complete scanning and digitization of all of the books in the library to make them into an accessible electronic format.’
‘All of it?’
‘The whole library is to be completely electronically searchable.’
‘And how long will that take?’
‘At current estimates and with the current deployment of resources and assuming there isn’t a major funding cut coming up, which,’ he sniffed ‘there most certainly will be, the whole library should be scanned, digitized and electronically searchable in approximately 10^100-1 times the total age of the universe from its beginning to its end.
‘That soon, huh?’
‘Are there any lavatories in this infinite library?’
‘This is a library, Penrose. It’s not Star Trek.’
Over several months, having been installed at his own desk in the Library of Everything, Penrose looked again at The Mythology of Keys. He had been working on the Semiotic Interoperability of Vs and Ws but he’d got stuck at V and his head was aching. He was beyond crying even. He stared wearily down at the figures on the page but the Vs would not resolve themselves into Ws. His mind vandered. Not to vorry, thought Penrose.
Penrose sat down for the thousandth time to resume work but the words wouldn’t come out. Here he was in the Library of Everything, bereft of words. Dictionary swallowing tends to constipate the flow of writing, which is annoying (troublesome, vexatious).
Penrose decided to work on the structure instead. The referencing was spiralling out of control. Footnotes of footnotes with endnotes, hyperlinks and nested references. At one point he realized he had misquoted himself, and he silently indexed it under “Errata”.
‘And how are we today young master Penrose?’
‘I’ve got a referencing problem. I rehearse a thought and then judiciously reference it, but then when I go back to check the reference, the reference has changed.’
‘You’ve changed the reference?’
‘No, the source of the reference has itself changed. It’s been rewritten. Every time, when I check in the Library, it says almost exactly the opposite of what I had it referenced for. It’s like every time I look away all of the texts I am using make a reversal, a shift from black to white or white to black. The sources keep changing and I have to keep finding new ones to replace the ones that have changed but then they change as well.’
‘You’re doing it all wrong,’ advised the Librarian, “Never write notes. Write full paragraphs, with repetitions and lacunae and whatever you need just to empty your brain onto the page. It doesn’t take much longer to develop the thought on the spot, but if you leave it you’ll spend eternities trying to remember what your thought was. Maybe you should just write what you feel. What you think.’
‘Noone is interested in what I feel or think. I need these references or noone will believe I have anything to say.’
‘But all you’re saying is what they say, boy.’
‘Admittedly I’m only saying what they say but I’m saying it in my own way.’ His face darkened. ‘Or trying to.’
‘Referencing is a canard, that’s for sure,” said the Librarian, “But don’t quote me on that.’
He paused to consider his wit. ‘Too clever by half’ said the Librarian.
‘What does that idiom actually mean, etymologically?’ asked the ever-curious Penrose.
‘It means,’ the Librarian sighed, ‘Llareggub.’
One of the quirks of infinity and infinite numerically irrational probability is that you can never find anything you’re looking for. It’s like a handbag. Every arrangement of letters and numbers, all language and literature and everything should in theory be there somewhere. Pi should contain every book every written — only it doesn’t. When you toss a coin, in theory you could get thirty or thirty thousand consecutive heads, but it never happens. There’s some kind of Law of Probabilistic Gravity whereby just because something can happen in theory it doesn’t mean it will. Except in the case of a miracle, but the universe isn’t that keen on miracles, and they almost never happen.
‘Phew. Hot in here.’
‘Air conditioning’s broken again.’
Penrose was about to ask, but the Librarian was pointing with some agitation at the desk.
‘What? What’s wrong?’ asked Penrose.
‘What’s printed on that rock?’
‘Thats a paperweight.’
‘What’s printed on it?’
‘Nothing. It’s a paperweight.’
‘It’s got lettering on it. Underneath it. What does it say?’
‘It says I Love Gibraltar.’
‘Is there a reference?’
‘A catalogue reference! Why isn’t it catalogued? My God, we’re going to have to start again. Back to aardvarks and aeronautics, re-catalogue everything through to syzygy and zephyr. Start again! I Love Gibraltar! My God…’
Over the coming months the re-cataloguing of the library began to visit a heavy toll on the Librarian. He began to dribble while he chattered, always chattering and rubbing his hands, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with an ink stained handkerchief while holding a pen and pencil in each hand to scrawl notes simultaneously with the left and the right, notes that then had to be catalogued requiring the creation and documentation of a higher level cataloging system, which brought with it its own notes.
It wasn’t just the referencing that was taking a toll on the Librarian. For some months he had been going from gallery to gallery of the Library inspecting the shelves with a specific purpose and a growing realisation that, in the Library of Everything, the books were dying. The people in the books were starving and noone expected them to survive.
The Librarian was grimly explaining to Penrose ‘It’s not just that the people in the books are dying, or that the pages are filling up with silence, it’s….’
‘What? What is it?’
‘I’m a Librarian. It’s not just my job to know where the books are, or at least who to point to to find out where the books are if I don’t know, it’s also my job to know what’s in the books.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘I’m starting to forget. Look.’
He plucked a volume from the top of his desk at random. ‘This is On Memory And Forgetting. A first edition. Now, I know that I have read this, but I don’t know what it contains. And it’s not just this one, there are whole shelves I know I must have read but… Perhaps I’ve been working too hard. Perhaps I need some time off. I look at this book and stare at its binding and the little flecks in the lettering and I recognize it intimately as if I’d bound it myself, but I can’t remember what it says inside.’
‘Everyone forgets things!’ protested Penrose.
‘I suppose so. But I’m… but it’s my job to remember, and I’ve started to forget.’
It had become noticeable to Penrose too that the texts in the books he consulted were corrupted. This was why his and the Librarian’s referencing and indexing were breaking down. He feared the worst. As the words vanished in the Library whole swathes of history would be lost and it would be as if they had never happened. Without the Library the events would never have happened. If noone intervened, then soon nothing would ever have happened. Cause and effect would become untied and so the cause of the universe, whatever it is, would cease to lead to the effect, the universe itself. There would just be cause without effect, forever waiting for nothing. It would be like trying to catch a waiter’s eye in a French restaurant.
‘You can’t save the Library, I’m afraid, Penrose. It’s doomed.’ His face hollowed. ‘Just doomed.’
‘But someone has to. The Library needs protecting.’
‘What for? Noone is interested in libraries any more I’m afraid. Penrose, when did you last see an actual reader in the Library?’
‘And the cleaners?’
‘The cleaners were laid off. We’re expected to do our own cleaning now.’
Penrose counted his fingers, and opened his mouth, but didn’t speak, still thinking.
‘And reshelvers, do they count?”
‘We’re expected to do our own reshelving now.’
Penrose clicked his fingers, ‘I think I saw someone browsing the Necromonicon, as it happens. A few weeks ago. Certain of it.’
‘Goth festival. Local thing. Obviously someone browsing the Necromonicon. Anyone else?’
‘But that counts. That validates the Library.’
‘How does it validate the Library, this incredibly unlikely occurrence of a good-natured goth wishing to peruse the Unholy Book for a few minutes in that book’s otherwise undisturbed life?’
‘Is that important? The popularity?’
‘To the Hermetic Holy Orders that pay for it all, it is, yes.’
‘I thought the Library was publicly funded.’
The Librarian snorted.
Penrose waxed, ‘But then what’s a library for? If the Necromonicon was being sold on stands at train stations and being given away with the tabloid papers, that good-natured goth wouldn’t have been here.’
‘Young Penrose, what you need to realize about libraries is that the Powers That Be have decreed in their infinite wisdom — and I’m not knocking it — that the only titles available for perusal should be those which have a proven cachet with the General Public, that will be read and enjoyed. It’s important that the Library reflects these proclivities, and only stocks books that are freely available elsewhere — because general availability is a surefire indicator of their popularity. It’s not the business of libraries to stock books that noone wants to read.’
‘But it’s the Library of Everything.’
‘Not any more.’
For his continuing work on The Mythology of Keys, Penrose needed to consult the Fables and Allegory section of the library. This, he discovered, had been shifted to an under-basement of the Library in order to make space for more trashy novels and economics textbooks.
Penrose, squinting into the poor light of the basement’s cold stone, failed to notice the shadow that fell behind him. A hand fell on Penrose’s shoulder, and stayed there.
‘All right sunshine. What’s your business here?’
His shoulder had gone cold. His body froze, he couldn’t turn to see his undoubtedly hefty interlocutor. He fumbled for a response.
‘I’m writing a book.’
No no no, terrible, terrible. Never tell anyone you’re writing a book. If you tell them then you have to finish the book. And noone ever finished a book, he thought, remembering the heaving shelves of the Library.
‘I don’t care what you’re writing, sunshine. Why are you here?’
‘It’s a Library.’
‘Library’s for reading, not writing. Plenty of books here already, don’t need more.’
‘But I just —’ He paused. ‘Reasonable point. You’re right. I mean, I was just looking for Fable and Allegory.’
The cold hand remained on his shoulder and a laugh he not unreasonably assumed was in some way attached to it rang out in the hollows of the dripping catacombs.
‘You’re having a laugh,’ said the voice, with a laugh.
Penrose felt cry-y. ‘Heh,’ he ventured.
‘Now,’ the voice boomed, ‘Why are you here?’
An obvious pause, succeeded by ‘And don’t even think about answering why are any of us here, or any of that philosophical Camusian crap about the only purpose of life being death, I’ll bloody lamp you I will. I’m allowed to, it’s in me job description. Part of the job, see. I’m paid for this. I have to stand here and stop writers getting in to look at the books.’
‘But it’s a Library.’
‘Not any more. Now, if you’re not buying anything, clear off.’
Penrose was, it must be admitted, making some kind of progress. The way a woodpecker repeatedly headbutting a tree will eventually invent paracetamol, or millions of years of genetic variation will eventually give birth to the appendix. The main obstacle to his work on The Mythology of Keys was no longer himself, but whether there would still be a Library in which to write it.
I’m going to write this book, he thought. I’m really going to. I must have been brought here, not by accident, but for a reason. To write The Mythology of Keys. I have to save the Library.
‘There must be something we can do!’
The Librarian eyed Penrose for several moments, making a show of weighing up options.
‘Penrose,’ he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this.’
The Librarian reached under the desk and clicked a switch. One of the bookcases (Section A23071^279-1 HER on Hermetic Architecture) retracted into the wall and slid aside revealing an opening.
‘Follow me,’ said the Librarian.
Like the Universe itself, the Library is thought to be almost infinite. Scholars have not yet successfully proven the that these two entities the Library and the Universe are not the same thing (in spite of what the charlatan historian Borges suggests), so perhaps establishing whether one is so will prove the case for the other. Philosophy really. In any case, like the Universe itself, most of the Library is completely invisible not only to the naked eye but to measurement and calculation, guess-work, wish-fulfilment and spellcasting. Most of the Universe is thought to exist as ‘dark matter’. Similarly, most of the structure of the library exists as secret passageways, catacombs and tunnels, none of which are accessible to anyone except those involved with the Secret Orders that preside over the infrastructural and budgetary workings of the Library.
As they passed through the secret guts of the Library, Penrose asked ‘Are these the Hermetic Order’s tunnels? Are you a member of the Secret Societies? The Acorn Order? Or the Secret Order of the Members of Secret Societies That Are Not Members Of Themselves? Are you?’
‘How would I know? It’s secret.’
‘You must know.’
‘Logically I might be, but I haven’t been told. If I knew, then it wouldn’t be a secret.’
‘You must be if you know how to get into the tunnels.’
‘Yes, I suppose I must be. I wonder when I joined.’
‘So,’ said Penrose excitedly, ‘Finally we can confront the Hermetic Orders and give them a piece of our mind about what they’re doing to the Library, how they’re killing the Library of Everything.’
‘Yes,’ said the Librarian, with a slight queasiness. ‘As you say.’
‘These are the Poets,’ said the Librarian. They were in one of the Secret Libraries in which they kept the writers. This room of the Library was devoted to the Poets.
‘But they’re all blind.’
‘All the Great poets are blind. Homer, Milton, Borges…’
‘But how do they write poetry if they’re blind?’
‘Obviously they dictate it.’
‘I mean how do they see all the poetic things – daffodils and such – You can’t dictate daffodils from touch alone, can you?’
‘I’m a Librarian not a literary historian. I don’t know how poets write. They probably just listen to radio documentaries and steal the most salient lines.’
There has been a great deal of speculation about the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order, and a great deal more about the imprecise vague notional and conspiratorial meanings of the Acorn symbolism. Scholars don’t know, and are not convinced that anyone really knows, least of all anyone in the Acorn Order itself. To the members of the Acorn Order, the Acorn is as far away as Christ is to Christian Fundamentalists. All that remains is a symbol emptied of meaning, a totem stretching off into nothing. A tattoo of a pictogram that you think means “love forever” but really means “stupid tourist”.
These ruminations on the meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order are in some way relevant at this point because Penrose and the Librarian have just arrived at an intimidating pair of solid oak doors that bear the largest iteration or permutation we have so far found in the Library of Everything of the frequent Acorn symbol.
‘What’s the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn order?’ asked Penrose.
‘How on earth would I know?’ replied the Librarian.
‘Penrose, I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.’
‘You think you discovered the Library by accident one dark and misty night. That’s what everyone thinks. That’s what the Orders want everyone to think, because it gives each individual some sense of ‘agency’. Well that’s the theory — and I’m not knocking it. It’s supposed to make you more productive. And you, Penrose, have been so very productive. In this case the Orders might have been quite right about you.’
‘How could they know? I mean, I don’t even know. Know what?’ Penrose was extremely confused.
‘The Library contains everything that could ever happen. It has all been foreseen. Your book is already housed in a faraway annexe of the Library. It always has been. The Orders have read it, and I understand they don’t like it one bit.’
‘I haven’t written it yet!’
‘You have, Penrose. That’s the problem, you see.’
‘Because the Library is infinite?’
‘The Library isn’t really infinite, Penrose. It isn’t even unknowably vast. It isn’t even as big as the universe. The Library is dying.’
‘The Library is dying?’
‘Because the people in the books are dying?’
‘We can save them. Can’t we?’
‘I’m sorry about this, Penrose. You see…’
A central spotlight switched on, theatrically. It was dazzling. Penrose’s eyes adjusted to fix on a large machine in the centre of the room. Along the walls he could discern a circle of hooded figures. Their faces were invisible and on their long cloaks each one bore the symbol of the Acorn.
‘It’s just that you can’t be allowed to finish your book. The Orders say so. They’ve read it in the Library of Everything, and they say it’s very bad news. It could cause no end of problems for the Orders. And, please understand, Penrose,’ admitted the Librarian, ‘If I let you finish your book then I’m going to lose my job. There aren’t any librarians any more, you see. They’ve promised I can keep the Library if I submit to their demands. Which are really not unreasonable.’
‘But you helped me. We were so near!’
‘It’s impossible, Penrose. I’m sorry. You must see that. It’s the only way to save the Library. It’s really the only way. You can’t write that book. There can be no Mythology of Keys any more.’
As the Librarian carefully strapped Penrose into the machine, the hooded figures of the Hermetic Orders chanted, but unlike any chant. Arrhythmical, a babble, all languages and none. Cacophany. A chaos of sounds and sound from the hooded faceless figures.
‘Really, Penrose. A Mythology of Keys, did you really think so?’
As Penrose’s body was drawn round and round and round on the slowly turning wooden wheel of the machine, as his sinews were stretched and his bones cracked and his body was shaken apart, Penrose realized he knew how to finish the book, that he had found the key to his Mythology of Keys. It was simple after all.