It’s not hard to dream what the Infinite Library may look like – towering bookcases, never ending corridors lined with shelves, and novels stacked high in teetering columns. Plus Jorge Luis Borges gives us plenty more sensory details to gnaw on in his short story, “The Library of Babel”. His imaginary library, commonly called the Infinite Library, theoretically houses every book that was ever written or will be written. Unfortunately due to sheer size and common zoning regulations (among other tangible obstacles) Borges’ Library has remained more a seed of philosophical thought than a reality, until recently. Through algorithmic magic Electric Literature contributor, Jonathan Basile, has recreated the complex daydream in this digitized version.
The premise of Borges’ library – and the inspiration for Basile – is an infinite structure to house every literary combination possible. Twenty five characters (22 letters in Borges’ age, plus punctuation) stream randomly into words, and words combine randomly into sentences to fill many 410-paged novels. The library is home to every one of these novels, giving rise to a nearly infinite universe of literary works. A nearly infinite universe of mostly gibberish that is.
Borges Infinite Library (image courtesy of Electric Literature)
The Library of Babel is outlined for us in Borges’ short story of the same title. The narrator of the story, a resident of this perplexing and supremely structured universe, illustrates the layout of the massive edifice. It’s honeycomb structure, comprised of many adjacent hexagonal rooms, is lined with books floor to ceiling. Despite the tidy appearance of the library, there’s no Dewy Decimal system in place here; all works are housed at random.
Among the mostly gibberish library is every book you, I, or anyone has ever read. Every book you’ve thought of reading or writing, even the one’s you haven’t thought to read or write (and that single copy with that single typo) — it’s all here. Amidst the unwritten the unthought and the endless nonsense are also the books we call ‘genius’, ‘classics’, ‘dull’, ‘blasphemous’, etc. It houses the Iliad and Virginia Woolf, and even your grandma’s favorite cooking book.
Image courtesy of Konbini
There’s greater complexity to the story line of course, but what interested Borges and motivated Basile is its gooey philosophical center. In line with the philosophy of Derrida or any one of his contemporaries, Borges visualized all literature and every speech, utterance or remark as an unoriginal combination of pre-made characters. What appears to be originality is just a random combination and what appears to be novelty just the reiteration of ready-made ideas. Everything that can be expressed has already been expressed and new is just a term we ascribe to the most recent churn of permutations. Borges’ relays a similar notion in his personal 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.”
It’s a topic Borges’ continued to explore throughout other works, and a notion he later tailored in The Book of Sand into an infinite book rather than an infinite library.
Basile’s model brings application to Broges’ library, allowing users to search and browse at random. Upon entering the site you can select a hexagon, each with 4 walls of bookcases, 5 shelves per wall, and 32 books per shelf. If you find yourself so inspired, you can enter any combination of up to 3260 letters and/or numbers to find a particular place in the infinite portal. Start typing a love letter to your kindergarten crush and prepare to see your troubadour style romance novel already written. Alternatively, write a list of grievances to society at large and find your Dostoevsky-cynicism already a 400 plus page novel. If you’re feeling lucky you can also click ‘random’ to be directed, well, randomly within the portal.
We can surely bash the internet for many things but we can equally praise it for turning philosophical musings, like Borges’, into more tangible models. We highly encourage you to get lost in this library!
Featured image courtesy of Buenos Aires Review