On the Nature of Infinite Literature
Infinity is a very intimidating thing. When we consider the possibility of time lasting forever, and the universe in its many parts being replaced by newer ideas, it’s easy to assume we will all get lost along the way. After all, when trillions and trillions more people have lived and died, who will remember that we ever existed?
In particular, I worry about books. In the 19th Century, a list of every author alive could be written on a few sheets of paper. And most of them have been remembered – the Bronts, Edgar Allen Poe and Dickens all have their modern day fanbases. But in the 21st Century, everyone’s an author. And it’s all too convenient to believe that the majority of them will get forgotten along the way. When we consider how many self-published and unpublished writers there are who never manage to sell a single book, the infinite nature of the universe becomes quite scary.
However, I’m willing to contest that with the advancement of human exploration of the universe, the love of minor writers will grow, not diminish. At the moment, we must accept that there are far more books on Earth than anyone could ever read; and this figure is increasing by thousands per day. But if we imagine the introduction of Earth culture to the rest of time and space, think of how the unappreciated could find readers. In all probability, there is life on millions of other planets besides Earth. It is to be assumed, then, that a book which may reach only a few authors on Earth has the potential to be read by billions of extraterrestrials in a few hundred years’ time when space exploration truly begins.
A problem with current understanding of literature and its limitations is that we assume everyone is interested in the same works. Yes, almost everyone has heard of Shakespeare and Socrates, so it is to be assumed extraexportation of Earthly goods will rely primarily on what are considered to be the best written works. Or perhaps you subscribe to the belief that all old writing will be replaced by greater works. Someone will inevitably write something better than Hamlet and that will be our set pride of all literature, right? I don’t think so. I think the older works and the newer works and everything inbetween will find its target audience eventually, and with this will come the opportunity to thrive – whether the writer of such works is still alive or not. A. C. Bradley wrote extensively on the works of Shakespeare, but the majority of terrestrial humans haven’t heard of him. Does that mean Bradley is an insignificant writer who will someday be replaced? No. Bradley and many others loved to write Shakespearean criticism; myself and many others love to read it. Just because not all works available now are part of the mainstream, it doesn’t mean they are a wasted effort. Different people have different tastes, and a potentially infinite number of people over a potentially infinite amount of time means a potentially inifinite fanbase for a potentially infinite number of works.
Perhaps the most comforting philosophy I have considered so far is the idea that, however many planets with however many people there may be, Earth is the only one to have the ability to create art. Supposing one of our first contacts with extraterrestrials is with some planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Imagine they tell us they’ve never heard of art before, but instead devote their lives to some concept utterly unimaginable to us at the moment. Art will be Earth’s unique trait, and can be spread across the universe. We can give art to other planets, and they can give back features impossible to our minds but nonetheless revolutionary. Then, an infinite number of fans lies in wait of a select few Earthlings. Every artist would then have the potential for an infinite number of admirers.
But, supposing every planet has art. Would that be a negative thing either? It would mean the potential for more great literature from an unimaginably different world. And that, in turn, would influence the way Earthlings write. Either way you look at it, spreading literature and other arts across the universe can only benefit the artists. For now, all writers have the potential for admiring fans – perhaps now, perhaps later, but someday. The infinity of time can only help this. Danger lies in assuming the most popular works are the most worthwhile. Everyone has a fanbase, you just need to find yours.