For eight months, my books and papers have been boxed and stacked and far away. “Papers” makes it sound as if I’m keeping some sort of official archive—although, in a way, I am. Since elementary school, I have kept letters and cards, notes passed in class, stories I have written, ticket stubs and theater programs, even snapshots my mom sends me of her garden. Of course, I am just as avid and sentimental a collector of books, hence this series of posts, in which I pined for a few of my favorites. As I waited for their delivery last week, my neighbor wondered why in hell I would buy so many books when I could just as easily use the public library. Here, then, is my reply: passages like this, to be discovered by opening one of my purchases at random:
In his Fractal Geometry of Nature, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot asks the apparently simple question ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’ The coast is obviously not smooth and regular. It goes in and out in bays and estuaries and promontories and capes. If you measure it at one hundred miles to an inch, all of these irregularities appear. But if you measure it at twenty miles to an inch, new bays open up on the coastlines of promontories and new promontories jut out from the sides of bays. When you measure these as well, the coastline gets longer. At a mile to an inch it is even longer . . . and so on, until you crawl around on your hands and knees measuring the bumps on the side of each rock that makes up the coast. The more accurately you measure it, the more uncertain it becomes. What matters, in the end, is your point of view. Mandelbrot compares the length of the border between Spain and Portugal in a Portuguese and a Spanish atlas. In the former it is 20 per cent longer than in the latter, not because the territory is disputed, but because the Spanish surveyors used a larger scale, and thus measured fewer squiggles.
And this is what my life has felt like of late, suddenly measured on the smaller scale of thirty-seven boxes full of measurements, recordings, and thoughts—from anonymous notes by mysterious ninth-graders that begin, “Dear Brendan, I really don’t know you that well, and you don’t know me, but I really like you and I want to get to know you better. And I’m serious too!” to reflections on the infinity of a coastline.
This is one in an occasional series documenting unlikely discoveries made while unpacking thirty-seven brown boxes of books and papers.