The Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel is a simple story – it isn’t very long, and the language is generally quite sparse and utilitarian. It’s not a story that tries to make the reader run the gamut of possible emotion, or one that tries to connect you with the heart and mind of the character. Instead, it fills you with existential dread. 

A link to the story is here, and I highly recommend it. Essentially though, the story describes a library – a theoretically infinite series of hexagonal rooms filled with bookshelves. And on those bookshelves there is every possible book, every poem, novel and play that has been or ever will be written. Countless authors have built upon similar ideas – Pratchett’s L-space is a modern example – but Borges focuses on what exactly such a library would mean.

The problem with the whole library is that is that it contains every possible book – not just those great works of art, but every single possible arrangement of letters. And most of that is nonsense. Strings of repeated characters, page long collections of mis-matched consonants, and so on. The tragedy of The Library of Babel is that the readers have access to incredible texts, but no way to find them, no way to sort them from the chaff. There are far fewer meaningful texts than there are ones filled with gobbledygook.

Reading the story is a deeply miserable experience, as Borges slowly recounts the ways in which the denizens of the library deal with their existence – the search for meaningful texts (a full page, a coherent line, even a single word), followed by wars between competing hexagons and book burnings organised by those driven mad by the search for some kind of meaning. It’s not a happy idea, to almost have everything but to have no way to search for it.

Despite the many problems that become evident when reading The Library of Babel, someone has built it. Not an actual, physical infinite library, with shelves stretching beyond the bounds of possibility, but an online version, one that generates every possible book from a single seed. I came across the new Library of Babel, to give credit where it is due, in this article.

Reading through the library, you get the same dread as you do from the original story – the initial sense of hope, slowly fading as you page through reams of nonsense, occasionally spotting a lone word amongst the throng. The search for interesting sentences, at first engrossing, becomes a miserable drudge with the dawning realisation that there’s no sense to any of it. It sounds like an obvious point, prescribed by the context, but there is always that forlorn hope that on the next page there will be a full sentence, or something – anything – that could mean something, express an idea.

Unlike the original library, the online one is searchable – you can actually find what you are looking for. However, this has two issues. The first is that it feels like cheating, and pointless cheating at that – any text you can think of is there by definition, all searching does is confirms that the text exists somewhere in the library.

The other issue is that searching is, if anything, more depressing than simply leafing through. Through the search, you can only find things you are already aware of – nothing new, nothing unfamiliar. It’s the same dreary hopelessness that the inhabitants of Borges’ library felt; no matter how long you search, you never find anything worthwhile or meaningful.

Without wishing to get too overwrought, it raises a lot of questions – ideas about the nature of art, of whether something can be artistic if it isn’t intended, isn’t created deliberately. Is a poem still beautiful if it is accidental? Is an idea still coherent if nobody meant to express it?

Most of all, it’s immensely frustrating. The Library of Babel offers false hope: all of the knowledge, all of the power and beauty of art, so close and yet still so unattainable. You could search through the library for a life time and never find one new thing, one full page of writing that made sense and gave you something new. There’s too much in the way, too much noise obscuring the signal.

And even if you did find it, is it really there? What if you discovered, word-for-word, the text of a book that hasn’t been written yet? Does that mean anything at all? Do you need to wait for it to be written to even recognise that you have found something?

The Library of Babel is not a happy story. It’s a story about diminishing, but never quite vanishing, hope. It’s a story about people on a hopeless quest who still can’t quite give up. Now, you too can spend your life looking for meaning in a place that is simultaneously both the most and least likely place to find it.

Here’s the link again. I keep going back to it, looking for something worthwhile and new. I haven’t found it yet, but I still search: someday I might find something. My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.


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