I recently finished reading Einstein’s Dreams, a collection of linked vignettes written by Alan Lightman (a physicist and writer, proving art and science can intertwine wonderfully). It’s a lovely book, equal parts whimsical and profound. The concept linking all the vignettes? As some readers may recall, Albert Einstein worked in a patent office in the early years of the 20th century, before he formulated his theory of relativity. These vignettes, then, are Einstein’s dreams about the essence and form of time itself.
The dreams are fanciful, as dreams often are. In one dream, the world exists on a conception of time where people age faster the closer they are to the earth. So, the people who inhabit this world build their houses on stilts. The higher the stilts, the higher their elevation, and the less they age. I could wrap it up by saying these people wind up living with their heads in the clouds – literally and figuratively – but there’s more to be derived from that simple vignette, emotionally and intellectually, and that could be said for any of the vignettes in the book. It’s the kind of book where you could easily find two or three favorite chapters and read them compulsively. My personal favorite presents a theory of “time travel” where the river of time has tributaries, much like a literal river, and sometimes a tributary of time will deposit someone in the past, in a feedback loop, three years earlier at some crucial moment, where they’re forced to stay off-scene and observe, knowing what will happen. (No surprises there, given my tastes.)
I didn’t get to experience one of those dreams initially, though, because it was missing: the pages for that chapter are ripped from my copy of Einstein’s Dreams.
I acquired my copy used, two years ago (it took me that long to get around to reading it, and there are books on my shelves that have suffered longer than that; my poor books…). So, there wasn’t anything I could do when I discovered the missing chapter. I read all the way through the book, but I kept thinking about that missing chapter and what it could have been.
Did you ever tear pages out of a book? It’s kind of a common thing, or it used to be: somebody rips some pages out of a book that doesn’t belong to them, like a library book, before sneaking it back into its place. Usually it’s a prank or something like that, but sometimes it happens because someone wants those pages bad enough that they’re not willing to let anyone else have them.
That was why I kept thinking of the missing chapter while I read further on in the book. And, I thought, it was more than a case of someone just liking a chapter of a book, so they decided to keep it. These were dreams, after all. Not just the hallucinations of a sleeping mind, but expressions of deep desire about life and time. Who hasn’t dreamed of stopping time still once or twice, or rewinding time for a second chance? I’ve had a fairly sheltered life in many regards, more than I would like, but one thing I’ve learned is that some people need those kinds of dreams more than others.
Once I finished the book – which, I hope I’ve made clear, I would strongly recommend – I looked online for the missing chapter, pages 49-52 in my edition. I found that chapter on Google Books: “11 May 1905.” I expected to learn not just what I missed, but also what kind of person stole part of my book, when it was still their book.
This is part of what I found:
In this world, the passage of time brings increasing order. Order is the law of nature, the universal trend, the cosmic direction. If time is an arrow, that arrow points toward order. The future is pattern organization, union, intensification; the past, randomness, confusion, disintegration, dissipation.
This is the kind of world that rights itself after chaotic, unpredictable things happen:
The sound of thunder makes a broken vase reform itself, makes the fractured shards leap up to the precise positions where they fit and bind.
And later on still:
Gardens need never be pruned, weeds never uprooted. Desks become neat by the end of the day. Clothes on the floor in the evening lie on chairs in the morning. Missing socks reappear.
So, I thought I had this mysterious thief/not-really-a-thief pegged. He or she clung to this dream because of a desire for order in life. Maybe things got too chaotic or unpredictable; maybe bills piled up and weeds clogged their front yard, and they needed something to help them hold off their worries.
And then I reached the end of the chapter, which revealed an interesting fact about the people of this particular world: every spring, they feel the desire to disrupt the order of things and lay waste to everything around them.
They sweep in dirt, smash chairs, break windows…one hears the sounds of broken glass, shouting, howling, laughter. In spring, people meet at unarranged times, burn their appointment books, throw away their watches, drink through the night.
My sense of mystery about the hidden chapter has since abated, having read its contents, and I now feel a sense of closure about Einstein’s Dreams, knowing I have read the entire book. My questions about the page thief remain, though. Which dream did they want to hold on to? The orderly universe, or the chance to disrupt it?