Sisyphus in the stacks

Sometimes a little bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder is a good thing. When I returned to university recently, keen as mustard, I tried to read everything in my discipline(s). It dawned on me fairly quickly as I hauled another armload of books out of the Fisher library stacks that I was never going to succeed. At best, I can read a book a day. Usually my book reading rate, excluding papers online, is much slower.

If an average book is 3cms, then at my absolute best full-time page turning pace, I could only read 10m of books per year. That’s maybe one single shelf (double sided) per year. On the ground floor of the nine storey high Fisher Research Library, each set of shelves has between 5 to 8 levels (on average 7) and there are shelves on each side of the central aisle, shelf after shelf after shelf.

At this point I calculated that my entire life would be spent reading without getting past 007 out of the 999 call numbers in the Dewey decimal system. And although those few sections make for an interesting journey, how on earth would it be possible to do interdisciplinary arts/science research? My only consolation is that this labor of Sisyphus is shared.

Admittedly the University of Sydney library is largest academic library in southern hemisphere, with 12 buildings and over 5 million print publications (as of 2005). I always thought that the production of knowledge was simply the conversion of text to thought and back again, but it is clearly impossible for any single person to absorb and understand the amount of information available on any given subject, let alone to work across disciplines successfully. It is absurd.

Albert Camus wrote the Myth of Sisyphus about man’s futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of eternal truths or values. He calls this the philosophy of the absurd. Sisyphus was a figure of Greek mythology condemned to perpetually push a boulder up hill only to watch it roll down again. Camus believed that realizing the ultimate absurdity of life demanded not despair or suicide but revolt, freedom and passion.

“The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (Albert Camus – Le Mythe de Sisyphe – 1942)

My journey from 0 to 007 in the Sydney University stacks will take me through such interesting topics as:

  • 001 5 : Ideas in cultural perspective / ed. by Philip P. Wiener and Aaron Noland.  1962 1 6  
  • 001 6 : On modernism : the prospects for literature and freedom / Louis Kampf.  c1967 1 7
  • 001 7 : The new learning : a contribution to a general view of the world / edited by F.J.E. Raby ; with a foreword by Albert Mansbridge.  1933 1 8
  • 001 8 : The morality of scholarship, by Northrop Frye, Stuart Hampshire [and] Conor Cruise O’Brien. Edited by Max Black.
  • 002 2 : Story of the book  1967 1
  • 002 15 : Books in our future : a report from the Librarian of Congress to the Congress.  1984 1
  • 002 30 : A book hunter’s holiday : adventures with books and manuscripts / by A.S.W. Rosenbach.  1936 1
  • 003 3 : Tools for thought / C.H. Waddington.  1977 1 4  
  • 003 4 : Chaos : making a new science / James Gleick.  1988 1 5
  • 003 5 : General system theory : foundations, development, applications / Ludwig von Bertalanffy.  1972 1 6
  • 003 63 : Autopoiesis, a theory of living organizations / edited by Milan Zeleny.  c1981 1
  • 004 113 : The information age : living with information technology / Bob McKee.  1985 1 28
  • 004 115 : Word perfect : literacy in the computer age / Myron C. Tuman.  c1992 1 29
  • 004 124 : Logic : a foundation for computer science / V. Sperschneider & G. Antoniou.  c1991 1
  • 004 192 : Slaves of the machine : the quickening of computer technology / Gregory J.E. Rawlins.  c1997 1
  • 004 36 : Engines of the mind : a history of the computer / Joel Shurkin.  c1984 1 14
  • 004 46 : The cult of information : the folklore of computers and the true art of thinking / Theodore Roszak.  c1986 1 16  
  • 005.1 147 : The Art of human-computer interface design / edited by Brenda Laurel.  c1990 1
  • 005 22 : Programming pearls / Jon Bentley.  1986 1 4
  • 005 22 A : More programming pearls : confessions of a coder / Jon Bentley.  c1988 1
  • 005 50 : How much should you trust a computer? / by Andrew Lister.  1988 1
  • 006 3 : Alchemy and artificial intelligence.  1965 1 3
  • 006 4 : Understanding media : the extensions of man / by Marshall McLuhan.  1964 1 4
  • 006 6 : Content analysis of communications / Richard W. Budd, Robert K. Thorp, Lewis Donohew.  1967 1 6
  • 006 7 : Approach to cybernetics.  1961 1
  • 007 12 : Think tanks.  1971 1 8
  • 007.018 3 : A primer on simulation and gaming / Richard F. Barton.  1970 1 11
  • 007 5 : Evolutionary Operation : A Statistical method for process improvement ; [by] George E. P. Box, and Norman R. Draper.  1969 1 6

At this point my full-time life of page turning research is over and I die well entertained by absurdities.

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