Bookshop Thermodynamics

Bookshop Thermodynamics

by Tom le Weed

Until Monday, having dealt with bookshops only as a customer, I thought of them simply as retail enterprises. How naive. Now that I have worked in one for the first time, I realise that a bookshop is really a laboratory in advanced physics.

I developed this hypothesis while working as a Tumbleweed. In return for providing a free crashpad in a charming old building on the Left Bank, Shakespeare and Company not unreasonably asks Tumbleweeds to do two hours’ work in the shop a day. This is referred to as “a shift”, because that is what you do for the whole two hours – shift books.

The need to do so arises from Newton’s First Law of Motion, which postulates that a body will not move unless acted upon by a force – or to state it more formally, a book that is on the right shelf will stay there unless disturbed by a customer.

All the books in the shop would, therefore, be exactly where they should be if it wan’t for entropy, the concept that the disorder of a system increases with time – or, as Erwin Schrodinger formulated it, the more customers there are in the shop, and the longer they are there, the more books will end up in the wrong place.

We then proceed to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the position of a book in the wrong place cannot be determined unless it is found by a Tumbleweed.

Further, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that a book in the wrong place cannot get back to the right place on its own. In accordance with Newton’s Second Law of Motion, the Tumbleweed must apply a force equal and opposite to the original displacement by the customer.

This often involves climbing a ladder, because as you’d expect from the Law of Gravity, books from the upper shelves – which reach to the ceiling – have a tendency to descend to ground level. (How this happens requires further research, as I have been reshelving books at Shakespeare and Co for three days and never yet seen a customer up a ladder.)

To conclude that the bookshop and the customers are in conflict would be a mistake. The converse is true – the bookshop exists because of the customers. Indeed, in his much underrated book on accountancy, Einstein estimated the critical mass of customers necessary to maintain a bookshop in dynamic equilibrium.

The labouring Tumbleweed, after all, is surrounded by the consolations of literature, none better than those of the writer after whom the shop is named. The ceaseless battle to restore order is like the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, with the plaintive cry of the Duke of Orleans, as the French go down under a hail of arrows, that they could yet defeat the English “If any order could be thought upon.”

To which the Duke of Bourbon replies “The devil take order now”, a formulation of the theory of entropy proving that Shakespeare had a more advanced grasp of theoretical physics than many critics give him credit for.

(In conducting this research I am indebted to my father for introducing me to the paper “Boarding House Geometry” by the eminent Canadian scientist Stephen Leacock. Shakespeare and Company has two copies of Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – you’ll find one for eur15 on one of the secondhand trolleys outside, or new inside for eur37. You really ought to buy it, but if you decide not to … please put it back where you found it.)

Tom le Weed stayed at Shakespeare and Company from 23-30 March 2015.