We Are The Center Of Our Universe – In A Good Way

FAIRBANKS — The turn of the last century saw lots of interest in taxonomy, which Oxford defines as, “the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms.” The hyperseriousness of taxonomers led Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s national librarian in the 1950s, to compose an essay titled, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.”

Wilkins was a 17th century natural philosopher who devised a system that “decomposes the entire universe of ‘things and notions’ into successively smaller divisions and subdivisions, assigning at each step of this decomposition a syllable, consonant, or vowel.” For example, “de” is an element; “deb” is fire, the first element; and “deba” is flame, a part of fire.

Borges believed that “it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures.” He went on to compare Wilkins’ scheme to an apparently fabricated ancient Chinese encyclopedia, “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” that divided all animals into “those that belong to the Emperor,” “embalmed ones,” “those that are trained,” “suckling pigs,” “mermaids,” “fabulous ones,” “stray dogs,” “those that tremble as if they are mad,” “innumerable ones,” etc. Borges’ point was that it’s impossible to truly “know what thing the Universe is,” much less describe it fully in language.

Being horribly callow, I missed the opportunity to glean more wisdom from Senor Borges, whom I met when he came to my introductory reference course in the University of Texas Austin library school. The professor was a noted bibliographer of Spanish language writings and a pal of Borges. The great man was blind by then, but at least I can regularly enjoy and reflect upon “The Library of Babel,” Borges’ wonderful short story that described a universe composed of identical interconnected hexagonal rooms containing identical 410-page books that described all knowledge, in all languages, using every possible combination of 22 letters, periods, commas and spaces. Since much of the potential letter combinations is gibberish, knowing that the answer to everything is somewhere in the overwhelming plethora of writing drove his main characters — librarians, of course — to suicidal despair.

A good antidote is our best representation of organized information, a decent dictionary. There are scads to choose from; my favorite online dictionary source, OneLook.com, contains over 1,200 authoritative dictionaries, but for all-round lexicographical joy, I prefer print and illustrations, such as those used in the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary. But don’t stop there. At our library, I came across the Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary, with 25,000 definitions and 8,000 color illustrations. The section on “fine bookbinding” described “signatures” (“sheet that is printed and folded to make a section of a book”), “endpapers” (“sheet that is folded in half and glued to the first and last printed pages”) and “gathering” (process by which signatures are assembled together, in particular by adding endpapers.”)

The Visual Dictionary’s illustration of “library” didn’t fare so well under the trained librarian’s gaze. Computer workstations from the 1980s, a video cassette collection, the wrong shape for booktrucks and worse: no staff work area —how are those books going to get back on the shelf? Speaking of booktrucks, those handy transporters of library materials, a bunch of them is called a “herd.” According to one page of the Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Names, you can have a “shrewdness of apes,” “a shrivel of critics,” a “siege of herons, from the way the heron waits for its prey in the shallows,” and a group of librarians is a “shush.”

Comedian Stephen Wright asked, “If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?” In fact, dictionary, encyclopedia and map publishers usually insert incorrect information, often known as a “mountweazel” or “nihilartikel,” into their works to catch anyone copying their material. The 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia contained an entry for “Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated ‘for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled ‘Flags Up!’,” and “nihilartikel comes from the Latin “nihil” (nothing) and “artikel” (German for “article”)

As Marcel Duchamp once said, “There is something like an explosion in the meaning of certain words: they have a greater value than their meaning in the dictionary.”

Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.

Source : http://www.newsminer.com/features/our_town/at_the_library_column/enter-the-library-of-babble-defining-all-things-in-the/article_10eadfae-414b-11e8-835b-c77b7c312188.html

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