Sunday Stories: “Zeno’s Library”


Zeno’s Library
by Nick Douglas

I got fired from the infinite library. 

My work wasn’t suiting the needs of our patrons, according to the head librarian. We were in his office again. He was giving me one more chance. The chance was to stop being the director of acquisitions and start being the director of decommissions. When I asked him how he said I could start with whatever I had last acquired and work backward.

“The library contains all knowledge,” said the head librarian, “infinitely duplicated and iterated, in every language and dialect, and with pictures. It contains all truths and all fictions and all combinations of the two. It contains the cure for suffering, and the meaning of death, and the Jellicle names of all the stars.

“The library contains the lost comedies of Confucius, and the history of the sky, and the Devil’s Bible, which he believes with all his heart. Any time a book has described another, fictitious book, that fictitious book is in our library, infinitely, and in multiple fonts.

“The library has everyone’s biography, and everyone’s psychological profile, and everyone’s DNA, and everyone’s negative biography. The history of the world if they did not exist. It has the song that would have bonded you and your lover forever.

“It has an ode to every vessel, Grecian and Algonquin and Venusian. It has every hymn to every god, arranged for every instrument. It has Gödel’s completeness theorems, and Schrödinger’s choose-your-own-adventure, and Hawking’s completely accurate treatise on the five elements, including Heart. The library holds instructions for making a copy of itself out of a new Big Bang.

“But mostly,” said the head librarian, “it’s full of garbage. Just complete shit. Qizda-jerker-bluhda-blekky one two semicolon fffffffff. Nobody wants that.”

“I do,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “But I’ve rounded you down.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

“I gave you a new job.”

The head librarian’s office was lined with shelves, but they were filled with files. Records, payroll, and a lot of plans. The only book was the one on his desk. He had the kind of desk that belongs in the private office of a head librarian, but he didn’t have the kind of chair that belongs in it. So we were both in squeaky little roller chairs, and the lever to raise them was broken, or at least mine was, and I don’t think he was keeping his down to be nice to me. So we both had to sit all the way straight or else we’d feel like little kids at the grown-up table.

“I won’t get rid of books,” I said. “It’s not my specialty.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to learn,” he said.

“I’m morally opposed. Every book in here means something,” I said, “in some language. And if you don’t know that language, there’s another book in here that will teach it to you.”

“I don’t want a book to teach me made-up languages,” he said. “I just want books that already mean something.”

“Say you have a manual for building a nuclear reactor,” I said. “You could do a lot with that. But if you hand it to a toddler, they won’t care. If you give Kafka to a dog, it’ll walk away.”

“Do we have a manual for building a nuclear reactor?”

“Somewhere in there.”

“Somewhere in there. Buried under everything else you’ve acquired.”

“We’ve found some good stuff.”

“Yes,” said the head librarian. “Like this gem I saw on the staff picks table.” And he picked up the book on his desk and he started to read it.

“This book is dedicated to my loving wife, Laura, without whom it would not have been possible. And to my brilliant editor, Monica Benjamin, without whom it would not have been possible. And to my agent, Pat Washburn, without whom it would not have been possible. And of course my parents, and by extension my grandparents, without whom—“

“You can’t judge a book by its dedication,” I said.

“Ah, yes, yes, true,” he said, “true,” because when he wants to be sarcastic he repeats things. He flipped to the middle of the book.

“And to Max Lincoln Schuster, founder of the publisher, without whom this book would not have been possible. And to Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, without which it would not have been possible. Of course, I must also thank William Shakespeare, without whom several of the words in this book would not exist, so the book would not have been possible.”

“That’s accurate,” I said. “Shakespeare was the first writer to use the word lackluster.”

“Without which,” said the head librarian, “you would not have been possible.”

And then I took the book from him and I threw it at him. Which I only regret because that book was my staff pick.

I told Lydia I’d been fired. She took the head librarian’s side. “You got us too many books,” she said. “It’s been a real problem for me.”

She said it into her cup, like she was talking to the one swallow she’d left in the bottom. She always leaves one swallow, so when she gets a refill, it still has some of the old coffee in there. In as long as I can remember, she’s never finished it. It’s been one bottomless cup the whole time. The café staff hate her.

Lydia’s a reference librarian. People ask her for information, and she looks it up. Only we have every book, so whatever you look up, you’ll get every answer. You can look up what is six times nine and you’ll find books answering every number up to infinity, and down to negative infinity, and inward to one over infinity. Plus books that prove six times nine equals a warm breeze in an earlobe. Every answer. Lydia’s throughput is very low.

Usually she just picks an answer to give, to save time. Whatever answer sounds right to her, or easy. But it’s never the answer that the patron wants. Which is the patron’s fault, I think. If they know what answers they don’t want, then by process of elimination they know what answers they do want. So then why do they need Lydia? Maybe that’s the real reason she finds this so frustrating, because she’s not really needed. But she can’t admit that, so she takes it out on me.

“I’m sorry that me doing my work is a problem for you,” I told her, because I was feeling a little bitchy honestly, I lost my job and it took her ten seconds to make it about her. “I’m the acquisitions director. It’s my job to acquire books.”

“What books?” she said. “Acquire what books? We already have every book.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Don’t be stupid on purpose.” She smiled, because she never really thought I would change my mind, or that she would change hers, or that anyone would change anything, and besides if she had actually wanted me gone then she’d already won. And we chatted some more, and she told me about the worst patrons, the terrible secrets they wanted to find. And I didn’t point out how her job is just as disposable as mine, because really every job here is disposable, except probably the café staff.

Lydia and I get along probably the best of anyone on staff. Or at least the best I get along with the other staff. We’re not a great team. Half of us are working hard to undo the damage done by the other half. But no one agrees which of us are doing the damage and which are undoing it.

Lydia didn’t finish her coffee. I walked her back to her desk. She had every phone there, and they were all ringing.

I went into the stacks with Shara. She’s not on staff, but she’s one of our best patrons. She’s only interested in one book, and she hasn’t found it yet. So she was looking for it. I was there to help, but mostly as company.

I’d brought a tote with some snacks, and a jacket, and room for any good finds. Shara has a kind of luck in the stacks, which is statistically inevitable, but it still feels like magic.

She said, “Isn’t the entire point of the library that we have every book?”

“Exactly. It’s what sets us apart from the other infinite libraries.”

Shara loves hearing about the other infinite libraries. The ones that are infinite but not total. She’s fascinated and repulsed by them, which she says is a major theme of her own work, at least if she remembers correctly. I’ve never read her work, but I’d really like to.

I told her about the Asymptotic Archive of the Caldera Chronicles. It only contains the books from one series of epic fantasy novels. The series will end when it has recounted one thousand years of history of the magical land of Caldera. But with each book the author grows more thorough, and his editor gives him more leeway. 

The first book covered five hundred years of the history of Caldera. The second book covered two hundred and fifty years. The third book covered one hundred and twenty-five years, and so on.

“Hold the twine,” said Shara. She handed me the ball and climbed up a ladder to the top shelves. I looked at the strand of it running back to the front desk. I always feel nervous holding it.

Before you go into the stacks, whether you’re staff or a patron, a clerk gives you a ball of red twine, and they make you tie it to a pole they installed by the entrance. They tie it again themselves anyway, in case you made a shitty knot, so it doesn’t come loose when you’re a hundred miles in and leave you stranded forever.

It’s an infinitely long ball of twine, but it’s infinitely thin, so a ball of it would be infinitely small. You’d lose it really fast. Some people did, they got lost in the stacks, a long time back. Everyone freaked out. It almost killed the whole project. First big fight between me and the head librarian. Now the clerks wrap the twine around a stress ball to give it some size. It’s dual-function.

Shara tossed a book down to me. “Look at page fifty-seven,” she said. I did, and while most of the page was unreadable as usual, there were three words extra big in the middle, the right much, and it wasn’t a sign but it did feel special. I dropped the book in my tote.

I told her about the Morse Dimension. It’s got one piece of paper, with a dot on one side, and a line on the other. Every few seconds, a breeze picks up the paper, and it floats back down. Sometimes it lands with the dot up, and sometimes with the line up. It’s been around forever. Literally always existed. Theoretically it could have already spelled out every possible text of every possible length. But no one knows. No one bothered to keep track.

Shara shouted down to me. “Who’s gonna decide what to get rid of? In the day to day, when they do the weeding. What if they see my book and they don’t recognize it and they throw it out?”

“Yours will be safe. I mean, it has a narrative structure, it’s in a popular language, right? It’s the kind of book the head librarian wants to keep.”

“Maybe,” she said, “I think so, but how could I remember?”

“Fair enough. Well, odds are, they won’t see it.”

Shara is looking for a book that she wrote a long time ago. The original copy was lost in a freak translation accident. And for elaborate reasons, she can’t remember how it went. It’s a long and tragic story, and it’s not mine to tell.

I know that there are infinite books infinitesimally similar to her book, and I don’t really think she could tell them all apart. But sometimes I can keep my mouth shut, so I did. “I’ll ask someone to keep an eye out,” I said. “I’ll ask Lydia.”

“What’s that gonna do?” she said. “Lydia doesn’t even like you. Does anyone on staff like you?”

“Shit. Wow.”

“You know what I mean, that they’re all idiots and you’re the only one who understands the point of the library.”

“Lydia likes me.”

“She doesn’t,” Shara said, “and I’m not saying that out of jealousy or anything.” She was shouting down at me. Because of how high up she was.

“You know,” I shouted back, “when I told her I got fired, she only thought about herself. She only wanted to talk about how it affected her. So maybe you two would get along better than you think.”

Shara dropped a book on me. Which you should only ever do to someone for very good reasons.

She came back down the ladder fast, and she grabbed the twine from me. She started wrapping it back up around the ball, following it back along the shelves, toward the front desk.

Shara knows we have infinite versions of her book in here, all just a little different, and she’d be happy to find any of those too, just enough to jog her memory. Enough to help her write it all down again. But until she does, she has no idea what was in her book, so she wouldn’t know where to find it.

I caught up with her and we followed the thread back. By the time we reached the front desk, we’d made up and arranged a time for our next search. Life is too long for grudges.

We had a little goodbye party. Lydia organized it. I think because of our conversation in the café. She didn’t know what to plan, because none of us could remember the last time someone left the staff. So it wasn’t a very good party. Although who am I to judge, maybe for a getting-fired party, it was a rager.

We held it in the basement, in the intake room, where we keep the books we haven’t shelved yet. An infinite number of books, obviously, and I’d just brought in a new collection of oversize grimoires, so even though the basement is infinite too, it was cramped. And people kept bumping into the books and looking at me like it was my fault for having intake books in the intake room. And the paper plates were flimsy, so whenever someone bumped into a stack of books they’d spill their pie, which Lydia had gotten because she knows I don’t like cake. Which is the only reason that I believe she really meant well, and wasn’t holding this party just to remind everyone why I got fired.

Or maybe the pie was just to throw me off her scent.

She was pouring everyone drinks, she’d even fortified her cup of coffee, which seems like a cheat. Plus now won’t there always be a little bit of liquor in there? She kept pouring me too little. What did she think I would do? What did she think I had to lose? The head librarian wasn’t there, and what if he had been?

Everyone kept asking what I’m going to do next, as if I’d planned to do anything except acquire books for eternity. I told each of them something different, mostly because everyone knew I wasn’t really going anywhere. They couldn’t imagine me outside the library and neither could I. So I’d say I’m going to learn surfing, or usurp a throne, or I’ll moonlight at the Cartesian Theater. And they’d pretend that they believed me, because if they didn’t they’d be too sad. They would nod too vigorously and they’d drop pie on a grimoire. And I’d say “Now we have to shelve that with the scratch-and-sniffs,” and we’d laugh. Because we knew that I really meant it, but we also knew that it wouldn’t happen.

The party went late. It wasn’t a blowout, it’s just that no one knew when to leave, and Lydia had brought a lot of pie. At one point I had that sick swimmy feeling when something is dragging on and every second seems to take longer than the one before, and I wondered if the party would last forever.

But eventually there were fewer people around, although I hadn’t seen anyone leave. And then it was just me and Lydia and Shara, and very quickly after that it was just me. And I left the basement.

I went to the edge of the stacks. It was late but there’s always a clerk there. He handed me a ball of twine. I tied one end to the pole. He checked it and he tied it again himself. He didn’t look at me because he knew I was looking at him, and he knew what look I was giving him, and he was sick of getting that look from me. And then I walked into the stacks.

I’m in a room right now where I’ve never been before. Which is embarrassing. I thought that would take me longer.

I found an interesting book. It’s just one symbol, repeated. I don’t recognize the symbol. I don’t know what it could mean. I don’t know if it’s a hieroglyph or a letter. I don’t know if it’s in a special script or if this is the platonic ideal of the symbol. Maybe the parts I think are essential to the symbol are actually flourishes of calligraphy. Maybe each instance is actually a different symbol, the way a straight line could be an L, or an I, or a 1. Or a mistake.

The whole book is this symbol, repeated. It might be a very powerful symbol. Might be nothing. There are infinite books like this. Somewhere in here.

It’s dim. A good room to rest. A comfortable chair that’s big enough to lie down in. The ceiling is arched, like the bottom of a boat, like the whole room could break off and float away.

There’s a certain kind of knot the clerks use at the entrance to the stacks. It’s been tested and tweaked for a long time, it’s very secure. There’s another certain kind of knot, which you can tie before that knot, which reverses its effects. Give it a little tug, both knots will unravel, and the twine will slip free.

I mean I could have just dropped the stress ball, but it might come in handy.


Nick Douglas‘s work has appeared in Gawker, Lifehacker, the Toast, McSweeney’s, and the Journal of Visual Culture. He is a co-creator of the fiction podcast “Roommate From Hell.” This is his first published short story.

Photo: Iñaki del Olmo/Unsplash

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