Eternity and Engagement: Infinity and Books in Thomas Wharton’s Salamander, by Laura Harris (grade 12)

Thomas Wharton’s Salamander is about an eighteenth century printer, Nicholas Flood, and his extraordinary quest to create the infinite book. At heart, though, Salamander is about reading and the process of creating books. Flood never does create the infinite book, but over the course of the novel, books become temporarily infinite by the process of creating them through reading, writing and printing.

Early in Salamander, Flood has a conversation with the Abbé de Saint-Foix about the Abbé’s life, relationship to books and the concept of time. Near the end of this conversation, the Abbé tells Flood of an Islamic saying that “an hour of reading is one stolen from Paradise,” and then adds that “an hour of writing gives one a foretaste of the other place” (76). Heaven and Hell are both eternal, which simply means that the time of their existence is infinite. Thus reading and writing are both able to give a taste of infinity, which may or may not be pleasant. Printing also gives a taste of eternity to Flood, who, when locked in the Count’s dungeon does not notice the passage of eleven years as he uses his imaginary press to print a book that “would climb into being on the infinite spiral of the Fibbonacci sequence” (106).

The process of creating books requires reading, writing and printing, all of which give a taste of an infinity of time. That writing and printing create books is obvious, but reading is less so. Reading creates books because every reader comes to a books with a unique combination of books previously read, life experience and culture or world view. Using this background, he or she creates a unique version of the story. For instance, when Irena reads the Libraria Technicum, she imagines London as a place where “the people of highest and lowest classes mingl[e] together in the streets, greeting one another without ceremony as fellow citizens,” while Flood sees only “the result of cramming so many people into such a small space” (85). Each reader can even approach a single book in many different ways: fairy tales are read on a simple archetypal level in childhood and on a far more complex level later on.  When the number of potential readers and all their approaches to a single book are combined, there is a nearly infinite number of ways each book can be read. Although the work of the writer and printer often influences the readers’ creations of the book, it is not necessary as the Abbé finding utter satisfaction, and even deeper meaning from the blank books shows. Thus the infinite readings for each book make every book an infinite book, but no book is or could be the infinite book.

While all books can be infinite books, they are not infinite at all times. One can never stand in front of a book and say, “here is an infinite book”. Books are made infinite by their creators, readers, writers and printers. To remain infinite, books need someone, somewhere to be engaged with, and providing new interpretations for them. Wharton informs his reader that there are thousands of books in the castle, but he or she cannot know anything about them beyond that they are bundles of paper, ink and bindings. When the characters of Salamander begin reading and describing them, they allows both themselves and the reader to imagine interpretations and make these books infinite for a moment.

In Salamander, Flood searches for a way to create the infinite book, but ironically the answer lies at the beginning of his quest, when the Abbé speaks of creating books by reading, writing and printing as granting the creator access to an infinity of time. By combining this miraculous experience with the endless ways readers can approach a book, each book becomes infinite while someone is engaged with the book. Consciously or subconsciously, this means that every time someone reads a book, they gain a glimpse into the marvel of infinity.

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