People, Words, and Loneliness - Shadid Ahmed.

People, Words, and Loneliness - Shadid Ahmed.

People, Words, and Loneliness
People, Words, and Loneliness - Shadid Ahmed.


It all started as an objective piece of essay about some weird stories of the real and literature world but as I kept going deeper and deeper into these subjects, everything turned out to be a subjective piece of my mind. And though the following words may be artificial, disjointed, the isolation: coded, the darkness: an illusion, the feeling is real. And the feeling is one I'm learning to welcome. I Just hope that you’d get the same sense of thrill and excitement as I felt and move you as I was. Some stories in this carnivorous world can be overwhelmingly beautiful, solitary, or even exclusionary but if you are lucky enough to spend with one, it will help you know yourself. 

Chapter 1: What calls from that far distance?

Early in 1925, headlines across the United States briefly focused on an intensely local and specific story: a man in central Kentucky was stuck in a cave. His name was Floyd Collins, he was 37 years old, and he had spent countless hours exploring the dark tunnels, chambers, and cascades under Barren County. It wasn’t the first time he had lost his light, underground. It wasn’t the first time he had faced a squeeze. And he assumed, when he was found a day after the cave-in that trapped his legs, it would be a fairly simple process to extract him from the cave he so easily had wriggled into. It was not. 

Collins had underestimated his own caving ability. What felt to him like an easy scramble- only 60 feet underground!- was a near-impossibility to most people, both physically and mentally. Sand Cave, where he was trapped, was unstable, narrow, and (like all caves,) smotheringly dark. Men would go in to give Collins a drink of water or a sandwich and come out trembling, having barely made it halfway to his position. 100 hours later, Collins was still in the cave.

A few people had made it to him- his brother, a reporter, a firefighter. They planned to tie a rope around Collins and pull him out- even though the walls of the cave could shred his body like knives. Even though, as a doctor warned, the rope might stretch his organs like taffy. Collins begged them to pull him out, even if they had to pull his foot off. But they couldn’t.

The horror of the situation, the drama of the rescue attempts- it was electric. No one could tear themself away. 6 days after the first cave-in, officials decided that their best chance of rescue was to dig an entirely separate tunnel in from the surface. It indeed might have been their best chance of rescue. But it wasn’t enough. 14 days, two full weeks after he trapped himself in a cave that others could barely enter, Floyd Collins had died.

Congress regulated the area around Collin’s cave, in part to try and regulate the stream of new-explorers plunging into their own underground worlds. Today, it’s the longest known cave network in the world. Two million people visit the park a year. Because, despite its origins, despite the involuntary shudder that descriptions of it can cause, despite the fact that it is easier in every single respect to simply stay above ground. People just can’t resist it. It is, in one of the most literal ways possible, a call of the void.

It feels impossible to fully wrap one’s head around. It is absolutely bursting with strange beauty. And in the end, we’re faced, once again, with death and rebirth. Like an explorer disappearing under a glacier, or a man who disappears into his own underground world. No one would want to enter the hellish chute where a man died a prolonged death in the dark. But we gate it regardless. Because there is an inexplicable, irrational, irresistible pull to these worlds. There is a void, and it indeed does call. 

And it’s communicating a feeling here, one that I'm intimately familiar with, one that I think- I hope- other people are too. That sense of being lost in something far, far, bigger than yourself. It doesn't only happen when all the other lights are off. But we know it so well that it's immediately recognizable to us. It’s the darkness and the loneliness. 

Chapter 2: Contemplating the variation of the Alphabets.

Everything I’m about to write has already been written. Written long before I started this sentence. It has everything that will ever be written.It contains every book, article, and poem ever written. The best selling novel of 2029, the acceptance speech of the next president of the united states, the perfect analysis of the end of the world. But mostly, it has a near-infinite amount of nonsense. 

Originally Published in the year 1941, Jorge Luis Borges (হোরহে লুইছ বোরহেজ) in his book El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (এল হার ডিন ডে-সেন্ডেরোজ কেয় ছে বাইফুরক্যান) had written many short fictional tales and got an english translation in 1962 by James E. Irby. The entire book was filled with bizarre and otherworldly stories but this particular one had a strong gripping hook to it. Aptly named, Library of Babel. 

The rules of Borges’ library are simple. Each room is a hexagon, 4 walls filled with shelves. Each wall of shelf holds 160 books. Each book is 410 pages, each page has 40 lines, each line has approximately 80 characters. The walls that aren’t filled with books open onto other galleries, identical in dimension. The books have a defined alphabet, spaces, and periods. And that’s it. Every single title, 410 pages of those characters, haphazardly smashed together, from cover to cover. And the library contains every single combination of letters possible given that ruleset. A thousand monkeys smashing typewriters for a thousand years is a grain of sand on the beach that is The Library of Babel. And as such, the library has the answers to everything that has ever been wondered and everything that hasn’t.

“One which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-last page says: Oh time thy pyramids” ~  The Library of Babel. Translated by J. E. I

Somewhere in this collection, there is a book that tells your exact future, every event that will ever happen to you for the rest of your life. As a matter of fact, there are millions of copies of this book, each separated by a single typo or choice of phrase. There’s also, somewhere, a perfect guide to the location in the library of the location of the book that tells your future. Of course, there are also billions of books that will erroneously claim to be that perfect guide. In Borges’ short story, the library is all that the narrator has ever known. And, as far as the narrator knows, all that has ever existed. 

The Library of Babel is the logical endpoint on a sort of spectrum of libraries. On the other side, we’ve got the ones we typically interact with in real life. Modern libraries don’t actually want to have every book ever written available. That would be logistically unmanageable, prohibitively expensive, and- maybe most important of all- completely unhelpful to people who actually come to the library to learn things. A big part of the upkeep of a library is actually taking books out of circulation, what they call “weeding.”

Public libraries, tending to their paper garden, are in a constant process of reviewing, removing, and preparing for future growth. This is good! And necessary! But even still, I have a hard time not seeing this process as a little sad. Even if it’s a history book that’s brimmed with bias and straight-up false facts, it’s something that someone put sincere time and effort into. Yeah, it’s probably misleading and ugly and superseded and all of that, but it’s also something that someone poured their heart into, and i have trouble just throwing that aside. There are libraries that agree with this sentiment that literally every book is valuable although not all of them are real.

Chapter 3: What is truth if not preserving the facts of life?

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. It 14 million photographs, 5 million maps, 72 million manuscripts, 8 million pieces of sheet music. It doesn’t have everything. But I feel like I’d be hard-pressed to think of something that I couldn’t find in their collection. The library of congress is actually held in a bunch of off-site locations, which makes sense, but I kind of wish it was just one superstructure of books and records and everything else- a groaning tower of books, not built to be read or categorized or understood or even accessed. 

A few years ago, Harvard discovered that it had a copy of “Des Destinees de l’ame” (দে দেছটিনেছ) or “Destinies of the Soul” that was bound in human skin. There’s actually a name for this practice. It’s called Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The book in question actually even had an inscription by the author:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.”

Harvard obtained this book in the 1930s! Did no one realize what they were holding? Or did someone know and tucked it away regardless, waiting for nearly a century before it was discovered again?

There have been attempts to catalog every book. The most recent, and maybe most promising, was by Google. Around 2004, Google started borrowing books from libraries by the truckload. One by one, a person would flip through the pages of a book while some very specifically-designed equipment scanned the pages. They did this with 25 million books. Their stated goal was to scan all 129,864,880 books in the world- and that was in 2010. Under the crushing weight of concerns from living authors, and the inability to figure out what to do with dead ones, Google eventually shelved the effort for another time.  

But here’s the thing- it’s not like they deleted those 25 million books. Google has billions of perfectly scanned, searchable pages of rare books and out-of-print ones, and they’re just sitting on a hard drive somewhere.

James Somers interviewed a Google engineer for his article in “The Atlantic”: 

“What’s standing between us and a digital public library of 25 million volumes?”

The Google engineer answered: 

“You’d get in a lot of trouble but all you’d have to do, more or less, is write a single database query. You’d flip some access control bits from off to on.”

Chapter 4: Facts of life and facts of fiction.

As far as the stories of hoarded libraries goes most famous of all is likely the library of Alexandria. It’s taken on absolutely mythic status in the hundreds of years since its destruction, once home to anywhere between 40,000 and 700,000 scrolls. Alexander the Great did not found the library of Alexandria. He was, historically, not a big fan of them. Alexander’s wars and quest for cultural dominance led him to do stuff like burn the massive collection of books in ancient Persepolis. The founder of the library came about after Alexander’s death, thanks to a guy named Ptolemy Soter

It is definitely more real than the library of babel, but its hyperbolized place in history is just as hard to fully understand. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s heard that we would be living in a utopia or how great the society would if only the library hadn’t burned to the ground. Well, The library didn’t burn to the ground. Not really. There was a time when it kind of burned. Not intentionally. There were just too many ships in the harbor and Caesar, in all his glory and purposes, thought burning them would be the best way to get all those ships out of the harbor. And then some floating ash drifted over and landed on the library and torched some tens of thousands of scrolls. Not great. But the library continued to function. Let’s just say rumors of the library’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s kind of fun to think of it as some great tragedy, eons of knowledge destroyed by a stray match. But things just aren’t that exciting. Most likely it was just a casualty of the generals of Alexandria as a world-important city after it came under Roman rule. There were other libraries, and so having this one store of all knowledge just wasn’t a priority. It was eventually destroyed but by that time, many of the scrolls had mostly been copied or just given away. 

But the reason the semi-fictional “Destruction of Alexandria” is so magnetically tragic, like when I read about people throwing nonsense books into a void, is that books are important for reasons more than just practical day-to-day knowledge. They’re a way of preserving who we are, and were, and could be.

Chapter: 5: Heroes of Timbuktu

In The Library of Babel, there are cults that live within the bookshelves that sought to rid the library of all gibberish- that is, almost the entire library. They would preserve the books that they could comprehend. They would throw every book into the bottomless void that exists between floors, ridding themselves of the undeserving in a crusade-like quest for meaning.

“Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves” The Library of Babel. Translated by J. E. I

But, as the narrator in the story suggests, there’s no number of books they could destroy that could actually affect the library. When it comes to almost-infinity, millions of books don’t even qualify as a footnote.

In our modern day though, there have been threats of catastrophic losses of libraries- and heroes who have stepped in.

In 2013, a group of men swept into the Ahmed Baba Institute in Sankoré, Mali, a government library. They grabbed thousands of centuries-old manuscripts threw them into a courtyard, and torched the whole lot of them. The attack was predictable, at least to one man, named Abdel Kader Haidara. He knew that Al-Qaeda had been sweeping through the region, incinerating the written history of Mali. He knew that the arson wouldn’t be an isolated incident. And he that Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidara Library, a collection of manuscripts he fought tooth and nail to save, could be next.

So immediately he starts buying trunks. Thousands of trunks. He buys every trunk in Timbuktu, and then he gets metalworkers to tear apart oil barrels and start welding them back into trunks. Why? Because he’s going to save his entire library.

From around 1500 to 1600, Timbuktu lived in an absolute Golden Age of writing and research. Scholars wrote endlessly on astronomy and medicine and law and how to have good orgasms (seriously). And the pages that they wrote on were gorgeous too, with way more flourishes than average science textbook. They used different colors of inks, filled the margins with geometric designs, occasionally even pressing the pages with gold leaf. 

Timbuktu’s writers were using the Quran as a stgarting point to explore basically all the mysteries of the universe in a legitimately beautiful and expansive way. But, as it so often happens, the golden age came to an end. Morocco took over Timbuktu and demonstrated a willingness to destroy books that pushed bibliophiles into hiding. Later, French Sudan occupied and colonized Timbuktu. Soldiers frequently stole the manuscripts and took them home to display in museums and private collections. 

But more damaging, though, was the language itself. French became the language taught in Timbuktu schools, and as such, the manuscripts which were written in Arabic, became inaccessible to more and more of the population. But there were people who remembered and appreciated the meaning of those pages, people like Haidara. And after years of convincing folks that the manuscripts were worth saving, him and other collectors and librarians were able to compile a genuinely inspiring collection. And then, after yet another invasion, this time, Al Qaeda, they realized that the centralized nature of those libraries made them targets. To save the manuscripts, they were going to have to break up the library.

So Haidara and volunteers buy every trunk in Timbuktu, and then they start packing them. And remember, these aren’t bound books as we think of them, they’re much closer to stacks of really delicate papers. They pack hundreds of thousands of them into these chests. And they’re doing it at midnight, because if they were caught, the whole plan- as well as the manuscripts- would go up in smoke. 

Eventually, they get everything packed up, and Haidara sent one of the volunteers- his nephew- to Bamako, with a jeep loaded with 5 chests. The nephew gets harassed at checkpoints and thrown in jail twice along the way, but eventually makes it all the way to Bamako. He distributes the chests among private houses in the city, people who have promised to keep them safe and secret. And then he drives back, and does it again. And again. And again. He drives the 600-mile, checkpoint filled round trip 30 times. Eventually, even that trip was made impossible and Haidara and the volunteers realized they had only one other option which was sending the manuscripts down the Niger (নাইজার) river. Have you ever dropped a book in a river before? You ever done that with a centuries-old manuscript? 

791 trunks got sent down the river, paying bribes and dodging literal attack helicopters the whole time. But they all made it. Every single trunk, by land and by sea, made it safely to Bamako where they were kept safe by people who were willing to literally risk their lives to protect these books.

Chapter 6: And what may lie beyond the valley of fiction! 

I don’t think I'll ever realize  how much of me now is based on the time I have spent reading this kind of stuff my whole life. But I can only imagine the meaning, the self-defining, that could come from a library like the one saved in Timbuktu. I understand why someone would risk attack helicopters and imprisonment to save it. In Borges’ short story, everyone has defined themselves by the library they live in- of course they have, there’s literally no world outside of it. But the philosophies that arise from living inside an infinite library are weirdly relatable. Sheer joy at the thought that the answers we’re looking for are out there, already written down. Followed by the realization that the answers aren’t the hard part, not really. It’s understanding that infinite collection, wrapping your brain around that infinite amount of knowledge. 

Now, do I more feel alive when I read these stories? I'm not sure. But they do feel intimate, in a way that is indescribable. There's a sense of solidarity in them that somehow imparts empathy with the subjects of these stories, with the people living in the giant cities of long-dead history. I think there's ultimately a pretty obvious answer to why all these things create this feeling, at least for me. I'm the alive one. What they've given me is space without objectives, time without a timer. It's strange not being told what to do in a medium that we've basically created to give us things to do. What's left is me, and how I relate to the world  just as a thing living on this planet. It's as simple as being given time to reflect. it's made me seek this out more in real life. Go hiking without a partner, go to a library by myself. Give social life a little time to know itself. 

I couldn't be more grateful for this kind of space, and this lack of structure. A reminder that you don't always need people to give direction, don't always need to calculate which of the two roads will get you through the wood a minute faster. Things don't have to be constantly happening to remind you of being alive. 

“The Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret. My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”  ~  The Library of Babel. Translated by J. E. I

Written by: Shadid Ahmed, Honours in English, NU. Bangladesh. 

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