Libraries & Humility

Some great passages in this Los Angeles Review of Books essay on Umberto Eco and “dietrologia — literally, “behindology,” the art of deciphering the hidden meanings of things.” I thought the following passage worth quoting in full, on the relationship between libraries and epistemic humility:

Humility is often thought of as a behavioral virtue — a matter of how we relate to God or to our neighbor. But it should also be an epistemic virtue — about how we relate to what we can — and cannot — know about the world, ourselves, and others. Any self-reflecting scholar sooner or later reaches a point where, for all her knowledge and understanding, she realizes the immensity of that which she can neither know nor understand. Indeed, the more insightful she is as a scholar, the more terrifying the dimensions of all that ignorance and incomprehension. Dwarfism is the natural condition of the scholar honest with herself.

This revelation is often prompted by a very specific space: the library. Surrounded by shelf after heavy shelf of “giants,” we may feel crushed. Gradually, however, we become used to our crushed condition, and even attracted to the place; in time, our fascination with it grows and so does our compulsion to linger. We end up making the library our home, taking leave of the world. And before we know it, we end up in a seriously perverse relationship with the library.

Umberto Eco knew the situation only too well. He was enthralled with libraries, their sworn devotee and happy slave. Libraries fill his books. The best part of The Name of the Rose takes place in one, “the greatest library in Christendom,” whose absolute ruler, appropriately enough, is a monster and a deranged mind: Jorge de Burgos (Eco’s tender gesture toward Jorge Luis Borges, whom he greatly admired). Eco’s personal libraries were the stuff of legend; the one in Milan alone allegedly had around 30,000 volumes.

But the numbers, however big, are not the point. For what the library tells you is not that there is that much to read, but that there are no limits as to how much there is to know. The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it, the more you realize that no time could ever be enough; no matter how hard you strive, you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax. A “normal” relationship with a library would be no relationship at all.

To say, then, that Eco — or, for that matter, anyone like him — was a “voracious reader” would be to miss the point. If anything, he didn’t devour books, he was devoured by them. What a library primarily offers is not learning (you can get that online), but a sense of profound existential disorientation. The function of the library is not to give you answers, but to overwhelm you with ever more questions. You may go to the library for enlightenment, but all you do is get lost. “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world,” Brother William of Baskerville observes in The Name of the Rose. “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” You walk in glowing with self-confidence, enamored of books, and you come out — if you ever do — all in shatters, the shadow of your former self.

And that’s the best part of it. For being shattered may be the finest thing to happen to you if you are on a quest for meaning, as Eco always was.