The Utopian Library

In what is recognised as the foundational document in the genre of utopian writing, Thomas More imagines a traveling library. In Utopia (1516) he has the sea captain Raphael Hythloday take on his journey a model collection of books along with the gift of a printing press for the strange folk among whom he will find himself. More’s fantasy, based on the creation of a world framed by a canon of learning, is an early example among many to describe the ideal library:

I happened to carry a great many books with me, instead of merchandise, when I sailed on my fourth voyage; for I was so far from thinking of soon coming back, that I rather thought never to have returned at all, and I gave them all my books, among which were many of Plato’s and some of Aristotle’s works: I had also Theophrastus on Plants, which, to my great regret, was imperfect; for having laid it carelessly by, while we were at sea, a monkey had seized upon it, and in many places torn out the leaves.  They have no books of grammar but Lascares, for I did not carry Theodorus with me; nor have they any dictionaries but Hesichius and Dioscerides.  They esteem Plutarch highly, and were much taken with Lucian’s wit and with his pleasant way of writing.  As for the poets, they have Aristophanes, Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles of Aldus’s edition; and for historians, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Herodian.  One of my companions, Thricius Apinatus, happened to carry with him some of Hippocrates’s works and Galen’s Microtechne . . . .

‘When a history of the book in Utopia comes to be written,’ J.B. Trapp observed, ‘the precise form in which Hythlodaeus . . . satisfied the Hellenic yearnings of its inhabitants will require attention.’ Like More, the far-traveled sailor seems to have had a predilection for portable and exquisitely printed Aldine editions, most of which were available at the time he reputedly left Lisbon in May 1503. Among the most conspicuously topical were the Sophocles of 1502 and the Theophrastus which, according to Trapp ‘could only have been the fourth volume’ of Aristotle of 1497. However, there are other titles that would have been impossible to take. Neither the Plato, the Heprodian nor the Hesychius was available in Greek when Hythloday says he set out from Europe with Vespucci.

Was the presence of titles valued by the author, but not available to Hythoday on the date of his stated departure from Portugal, merely bibliographical ineptitude on More’s part? While such mysteries might keep incunabulists awake at night, it is unlikely to have troubled the author, who in 1516 might have wanted to present the library of Hythloday (literally ‘speaker of nonsense’) as a catalogue of some of the best up-to-the-minute titles then available to European civilization, the equivalent of a Desert Island Discs for the early sixteenth century humanist scholar, with the exception perhaps of the ‘imperfect’ Theophrastus, badly edited in More’s own day.

In thinking about the idea of books as tools for the transformation of culture, Hythloday’s travelling library seems to anticipate a belief in what Elizabeth Eisenstein called ‘the printing press as an agent of change’. In presenting his select library to the Utopians, along with a printing press for its replication, Hythloday might thus be seen to perform the role of cultural missionary. Captain Kirk’s prime directive – to observe but not to interfere – seems not to have applied in More’s intellectual world.

Francis Bacon offered a considerably more dynamic model of learning in The New Atlantis (1627), an imaginary island which exists primarily for the creation of new discoveries. In what is effectively an early form of science fiction, Bacon imagines the world as a knowledge economy where innate curiosity leads to the proliferation of technological innovation.

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For at least one SF writer in the twentieth century, the utopian fantasy of a limitless access to knowledge was to find its embodiment in the dream of a total library. Around 1936, H.G. Wells began to contemplate the possibility of a near future in which all of humanity would have access to a ‘World Encyclopedia . . . alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere.’ This was about the time that the Eastman Kodak Company was experimenting with microfilm and the Library of Congress and other major research institutions were commissioning the first large-scale microform projects. In effect, Wells believed that the technology was already in place for creating a global information revolution.

The cultural heroes of what Wells speculatively termed The World Brain would be the bibliographers and librarians of the future. ‘The time is close at hand’, he enthused, ‘when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her own convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.’ Although Marshall McLuhan is popularly regarded as the prophet of the internet, it might be argued that Wells was conceptualizing a similar digital landscape in the years before the Second World War:

You see how such an Encyclopaedic organisation could spread like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity.

Only two years after Wells was outlining his dream of a boundless infoverse, Jorge Luis Borges described in The Library of Babel an infinite collection containing not only all of the books ever written but even those yet to be conceived. Although Borges avoids mentioning Wells by name, it is more than likely that he was thinking about the older writer in 1941.

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist-somewhere in some hexagon.

It is rumoured, writes Borges, that the library even had the potential to provide ‘a detailed history of the future.’ In reality, The Library of Babel, as its name suggests, creates as much confusion as certainty. The effect of such a bizarre and infinite project, predicts Borges, is to create a form of information overload that destabilizes epistemology itself. Seven decades later, we might finally be catching up with this image of a brave new world of information. That we might sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of noise out there, suggests that, for all of its possibilities, the utopian library is fated to be as impossible as Utopia itself.


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