Turtles All the Way Downs: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Americans have no idea what’s going on in the library. It’s not your normal library, and Carolyn, David, Michael, Margaret, and their adopted siblings are not normal librarians. They always seem to bring chaos and carnage as sidekicks. Their thrift-shop fashion is too weird even for Macklemore.

Turns out this oddball group are orphans raised under tutelage of Father in a badass library. Each studies a specific “catalog,” such as war, healing, language, nature, and death. None are allowed to know the secrets of the others’ catalogs under the threat of brutal punishment.


I’ve been trying to write about this book for months now. It’s a beautiful novel that traffics in equal parts brutality and hope. I enjoyed it in a way that’s difficult to qualify. That doesn’t happen often.

There’s a concept in the novel called “Regression Completeness,” explained as “the idea that however deeply you understand the universe, however many mysteries you solve, there will always be another, deeper mystery behind it.”

“Regression Completeness” is a phrase of the author’s invention, but it’s related to the concept of Infinite Regress, in which a proposition must be explained by another proposition, which in turn must be explained by another…ad nauseam. Like the optical effect of two mirrors creating an infinite image, the explanations never cease except to end in a tautology.

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I think. (Descartes was a jerk.)

There’s a charming anecdote, most likely apocryphal, but the best illustration of the Infinite Regress conundrum:

There are many versions of the “turtle” story. Here is one of the best known:

“William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983. (source)

I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to have parsed all the implications of “Regression Completeness” in The Library at Mount Char. It’ll just lead me to a mixed metaphor rabbit hole full of turtles.

As readers,  we have to be content with accepting a mystery that we can’t explain: the mystery of a book that insinuates without a clear reason. We have to be content with it, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

There’s a moment at the end of Mount Char, where the title of the book is finally elucidated, and it packed such an emotional gutpunch for me that I had to set the book down for a while.

Now I must lay to rest the idea that I need to explain something to enjoy it. Instead, I put it in the box with Anna Karenina’s final moments and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as beautiful, devastating moments in art living outside my critical mind.

I hope everyone has a book or song or film or painting like this. Something that causes us to surrender to Infinite Regress and accept the mystery. To borrow from Milan Kundera, these mysteries are what fills out our lives with a “dimension of beauty.”


*forbidden catalogs

  • It’s pronounced “Char” as in “Charbroil” not “Char” as in “Charlotte” which is how I pronounced it until I figured out the context.
  • There’s a wonderful psychological concept coined by sociologist Erving Goffman that offers a kind of mental version of Infinite Regress. As explained in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: “[Erving] disputed the romantic notion that behind the masks we show other people is the one true self. No, said Goffman; it’s masks all the way down.”
  • Another fun, related concept is the Munchausen Trilemma, the episode in which the Baron pulls himself out of the mire by his own hair. Hijinks!

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