One of the best things about my first year at college was discovering the university libraries. I quickly settled on a favorite, and it wasn’t the beautiful old main library in the campus center, although I loved all of them (I don’t think I’ve ever met a library I didn’t like). Rather it was the library on the agricultural quad, with its utilitarian looks. The stacks were housed in a nine-story central tower, with study carrels tucked into the corners of each floor. The quietness was almost palpable and I rarely saw another person the higher in the stacks that I climbed. Sometimes I would wander through the stacks, perusing the titles, sometimes pulling one out for a closer look. Just doing this gave me an almost giddy feeling, as though by random chance I might stumble across some forgotten tome holding the key to everything. At times I felt like a 20th century alchemist searching for a modern day philosopher’s stone — I know how pretentious this sounds, but don’t you remember how being 18 years old felt?
As the years have passed, I have given up searching for the answer to everything in dusty old books, and that feeling of giddiness is a lovely memory, but I have never lost my sense of wonder and curiousity about how the world works.
Every week it seems there are new scientific discoveries, and while they provide new answers, they raise yet more questions. For some time now I have felt that the field of quantum mechanics just might be the modern-day equivalent to the answer to everything, if only I could actually understand it. I am not a physicist, however. So I’ve read a few of those nifty “Very Short Introduction” guides that Oxford publishes; I’ve looked through Mr. Tompkins and Alice in Quantumland; and I’ve even read a graphic guide to quantum theory. And occasionally the fog I seem to wander through lifts briefly: I feel a glimmer of understanding. But when I try to articulate my “aha” moment, it just slips away.
Making analogies makes difficult concepts easier for me to understand, and one of my favorite analogies is to visualize quantum mechanics as a library — within the universe of each book, all the events are occurring simultaneously. It’s only when you pick up a book to read it that time moves in a linear fashion.
And then along comes Ruth Ozeki’s new book, A Tale for the Time Being, just in the nick of time! It may be the closest I ever get to understanding the basic concept of quantum mechanics. This book is a story told within the framework of quantum time. The two main characters, Nao and Ruth, never meet. Although their stories are told simultaneously, they occur at different times. Nevertheless, the two characters communicate with each other. Nao is a schoolgirl who lives in Japan prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Ruth is a writer who lives on an island off the western coast of Canada. Nao puts her journal in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, which Ruth finds when it washes up on her island. Nao says that she is a “time being”, which she takes from a Buddhist poem with the words “for the time being” repeated in every line; we use this common phrase so often, to mean “for the present”, “for right now”, or “until further notice”, but Nao interprets them to mean that we are all time beings living somewhere in time, whether it is in the present, the past, or the future. Nao writes her journal as though she is speaking to whoever is reading it, and Ruth doesn’t want to finish reading it because she is afraid to end it and lose touch with Nao. Nao writes that she will commit suicide soon, and Ruth doesn’t want this to happen, even though it may have already happened. Ruth, who at one point declares that “writing is the opposite of suicide”, is suffering from a bit of writer’s block.
But wait, there is more: Zen Buddhism, Japanese popular culture, bullying, the dark legacy of Japan’s role in WW2, the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, island life, writing and literature, science, and philosophy. There is also sadness and joy and hope and love and humor. This is not a book I wanted to finish quickly.
I like to think of my books as my own personal quantum universe, my library of multiverses happening all the time right in my own house. A Tale for the Time Being is one place I will return to time and time again.