The Library of Babel
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The Library of Babel" (Spanish: La biblioteca de Babel) is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format.
The story originally appeared in Spanish in Borges's 1941 collection of stories El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). That entire book was, in turn, included within his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944). Two English-language translations appeared approximately simultaneously in 1962, one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges's works entitled Labyrinths and the other by Anthony Kerrigan as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones.
Borges's narrator describes how his universe consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for any given text some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of an infinite number of different contents.
Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. However, Borges speculates on the existence of the "Crimson Hexagon", containing a book that contains the log of all the other books; the librarian who reads it is akin to God.
The story repeats the theme of Borges's 1939 essay "The Total Library" ("La biblioteca total"), which in turn acknowledges the earlier development of this theme by Kurd Lasswitz in his 1901 story "The Universal Library" ("Die Universalbibliotek"):
- Certain examples that Aristotle attributes to Democritus and Leucippus clearly prefigure it, but its belated inventor is Gustav Theodor Fechner, and its first exponent, Kurd Lasswitz. [...] In his book The Race with the Tortoise (Berlin, 1919), Dr Theodor Wolff suggests that it is a derivation from, or a parody of, Ramón Llull's thinking machine [...T]he elements of his game are the universal orthographic symbols, not the words of a language [...] Lasswitz arrives at twenty-five symbols (twenty-two letters, the space, the period, the comma), whose recombinations and repetitions encompass everything possible to express in all languages. The totality of such variations would form a Total Library of astronomical size. Lasswitz urges mankind to construct that inhuman library, which chance would organize and which would eliminate intelligence. (Wolff's The Race with the Tortoise expounds the execution and the dimensions of that impossible enterprise.)<ref>Borges, Jorge Luis. The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 2000. Pages 214-216. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.</ref>
Many of Borges's signature themes are featured in the story, including infinity, reality, cabalistic reasoning, and labyrinths. The concept of the library is often compared to Borel's dactylographic monkey theorem. There is no reference to monkeys or typewriters in the The Library of Babel story; Borges had mentioned that analogy in his earlier 1939 essay The Total Library: "[a] half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum". In this story, the closest equivalent is the line: "A blasphemous sect suggested [...] that all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books".
Borges would examine a similar idea with his later story, "The Book of Sand"; in the later story, there is an infinite book (or book with an indefinite number of pages) rather than an infinite library. In addition, the Book of Sand is written in an unknown alphabet and its content is not obviously random.
The concept of the library is also overtly analogous to the view of the universe as a sphere having its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal employed this metaphor, and in an earlier essay Borges noted that Pascal's manuscript called the sphere effroyable, or "frightful".
In any case, it is clear that a library containing all possible books, arranged at random, is equivalent (as a source of information) to a library containing zero books.
Influence on later writers
- In "The Net of Babel", published in Interzone in 1995, David Langford imagines the Library becoming computerized for easy access. This aids the librarians in searching for specific text while also highlighting the futility of such searches as they can find anything, but nothing of meaning as such. The sequel continues many of Borges's themes, while also highlighting the difference between data and information, and satirizing the Internet.
- Daniel Dennett's 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea includes an elaboration of the Library of Babel concept to illustrate the mathematics of genetic variation.
- Russell Standish's Theory of Nothing uses the concept of the Library of Babel to illustrate how an ultimate ensemble containing all possible descriptions would in sum contain zero information and would thus be the simplest possible explanation for the existence of the universe. This theory therefore implies the reality of all universes.
- Umberto Eco's postmodern novel The Name of the Rose features a labyrinthine library, presided over by a monk named Jorge of Burgos.