Infinite literature

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An eighth-century book in its original binding, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 185.

The best books are infinite, reproducing themselves for as long as there are people to read. There are two types of infinity when it comes to the written word. One is related to a book’s ability to be duplicated, by hand or machine, into new exemplars, like organisms breeding new individuals. This way, the book’s survival is ensured. The more copies there are, the farther the book is from extinction.

The other type of infinity has to do with reader engagement. While some books survive through duplication, others endure through their capacity to morph into new texts, new books, new media. In ancient times, Homer’s survival seemed beyond question. Yet, in the West, the Iliad and the Odyssey ceased to be copied and read, at least in the version the ancients had read them. The Homeric world, however, did not perish. On the one hand, it was transformed by the creation of new works based heavily on the two Greek epic poems like Virgil’s Aeneid or the Latin digests which proliferated in the Middle Ages. The West did without Homer for a thousand years, but when Homer returned at the end of the Middle Ages, the West welcomed it with open arms, like an old friend who’d been away for too long.

Good books need both infinities. A context for duplication and one for imaginative procreation. The books which get recopied, reedited and republished are not necessarily avoiding extinction. They may simply postpone it. To ensure true infinity and real survival, good literature needs to be able to inspire and conspire to spawn new forms, new books, new worlds.

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