Annunciation by contemporary artist Tom Estes
In this day and age you can order anything online and receive it in two days or less. You can start a new book with a simple click. Libraries have always had a special place in the hearts of bibliophiles – from comfy chairs to shelves and stacks of Shakespeare, Hemingway and Tolstoy. In the scramble to gain market share in cyberspace, something is getting lost: the public interest in Libraries. Buckling under economic pressure, information they diffuse is being diverted away from the physical sphere, where it can do most good. But there are some things you can’t take away from the old days of reading. You can’t replicate those old and new book smells that penetrate the air of a physical book store or library. Remember when you could browse for your next book without an algorithm doing it for you?
Imagine a labyrinthian library containing all possible written works—even the configurations of letters, words and sentences that don’t make any sense. First described by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in his iconic 1941 short story The Library of Babel, that fantasy of an infinite space for language has inspired everything from Umberto Eco’s debut novel to an interactive Burning Man installation.
Today, the Library of Babel is also a web project. In theory, at least, the digital Library of Babel recreates Borges’ vision, perfectly embodying the tension of both a limited infinity, and an orderly realm of nonsense. Since the project’s inception, responses have ranged from general delight—one forum comment likens stumbling upon the library to going out for milk and seeing a dinosaur—to deep mathematical investigations on this Reddit thread to comprehend the monumental scale of the library.
The theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel” describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.
Overlords by artist Tom Estes
Though the story’s librarian-narrator believes in the possible triumph of reason, the principle force underlying the library is irrationality. Any expression, even the most elegant or undeniably true, is nonetheless possible without sincerity, or even any intention towards signification. The library makes this hidden power explicit: anything that can be referenced in language or accessible to experience must be separable from itself—a thought, a perception, a word can be made of it. This may undermine our sense of the simple presence of things, but it allows for everything interesting in the world: fantasy, lies, illusions, imagination, and fiction. If it weren’t possible for us to say “Here is a human” when nothing of the sort is present, fiction would be impossible, and we would never have embarked on the strange pursuit that, for some time now, we have called literature. Borges’s story isn’t simply one among others, but the story of all fiction, and with it all reality.
Though its underlying theory of language is powerful and undeniable, there are strange inaccuracies elsewhere in the library. The librarians in the story, for instance, encounter far more rational text than would ever be possible in a truly random universal library. Merely in the hexagons under his administration, our narrator recounts volumes with the titles Combed Thunder and The Plaster Cramp. Even some of the incoherent texts in the story, such as one where the letters “MCV” repeat “perversely” for 410 pages, are statistically impossible for mere mortals to encounter.
The most important of the librarians’ discoveries is another imposibility, a work with two pages in a “Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní with inflections from classical Arabic” containing the rudiments of combinatory analysis. Borges notes, with his usual strange humor, that it’s “illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations.” One could understand every volume in the library as such an illustration—an appendix to this manual on permutation and combination. The entire library fits inside a single one of its books, like the master catalog the librarians seek or the algorithm that produces the online version of the library, a few lines of code that can also be found inside its volumes.
The librarians’ entire universe-as-library theory grows from this discovery. The library contains all possible text, and thus offers the promise of revelation that motivates their search through its volumes. I doubt Borges was being naive when he placed these impossibly rare texts in his story. Rather, he played the role of a trickster god, seeding his creation with just enough meaningful and poetic text to entice both his story’s librarians and its readers. That its only possible result is disappointment and despair is part of his dark humor, and a fate he laments along with us.
His narrator, on the other hand, seduced by Borges’s trickery, has no sense of the true scale of the library, a barrier I continually encountered when trying to re-create it. Whether the library contains all possible permutations of letters, contains not a single repetition, or cycles through every possibility before repeating are unknowable. No one will ever encounter any duplicate books in a universal library. The entirety of human endeavor is insufficient to make it statistically possible.
“Many visitors to the Web site share this desire to reduce its volume to a human scale. Borges’s narrator tells of the Purifiers, librarians who burned texts without identifiable words out of a ‘holy zeal’ to reach books “omnipotent, illustrated, and magical. When libraryofbabel.info’s visitors suggest marking or eliminating ‘uninteresting’ or ‘meaningless’ texts, I remind them of the narrator’s two responses:
One, that the Library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. And two, that each book is unique and irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand [31,488,000, actually] imperfect facsimiles—books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma.
There is another improbable text the librarian-narrator has come across in his travels, one written by Borges himself, from an essay titled “The Total Library.” It was Borges’s first reflection on the theme of the universal library, published two years before his short story. The excerpt, well known to the librarians, claims that confusion and irrationality overwhelm the possibility of rationality in the library. Our narrator condemns these words as impious, tasteless, and ignorant. His counterargument is quite beautiful, and equally relevant when considering the “ascetic rage” of the Purifiers:
There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.
There is no such thing as meaninglessness, in other words, and not a single volume or even a single line of text worthy of condemnation in the near-infinite library. According to the theory of language with which we began, a speaker’s intentions can never secure a univocal meaning for his utterance: the possibility for those same signs to appear in new contexts, animated by different intentions or none at all, is as limitless as the library itself. The result is not that language loses all meaning but that it constantly gains more, as even the unprecedented combinations of its atoms, the letters, wait patiently for the discovery or invention of the language in which they will be the names of new gods.
“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in his classic of philosophical fiction, “The Library of Babel.” One of the most revered stories-as-thought-experiments ever committed to print, Borges’ fiction posits the Universe as a library (“composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”) that contains every possible text. This intellectual vision, at once playful and poised, has stirred authors (like Umberto Eco and Terry Pratchett) and philosophers (W.V.O. Quine and Daniel Dennett) alike for more than 75 years
“The Library of Babel is a place for scholars to do research, for artists and writers to seek inspiration, for anyone with curiosity or a sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence,” writes creator and DC-based coder Jonathan Basile on the website’s About page. “In short, it’s just like any other library.”
Except it isn’t. Drawing from its namesake, the site contains every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including the lowercase letters, space, comma, and period. In other words, everything that could ever be written, including every masterpiece, joke, and chat conversation.
How does it work? The digital library has 29 possible characters (26 letters, space period, and comma) that are each randomly assigned to the 3,200 spaces on a page. The site uses a pseudorandom generator whose algorithm allows you to browse randomly-generated books and pages by creating them on the spot as you click-navigate through different floors and shelves. Or, you can enter a string of text—be it a song lyric or Bible verse—and the library will find it for you, mixed in with apparent gibberish.
“If you tried to read through all the books, the sun would expand into its red giant phase and engulf the earth before you finished,” claims Basile. “This is expected to happen in about five-and-a-half billion years, long before you could ever read through all the books.”
But with Babel comes babble. The problem of the virtual library is the same as the library of Borges’ imagination: There’s simply so many permutations of text that the probability of finding rational letters by simply browsing is exceedingly rare. “It’s just a statistical impossibility,” says Basile. “You’d actually have a better chance of quantum-tunnelling(or disappearing and reappearing) through a wall.”
These different modes of discovery highlight a key element of both Borges’ story and the websites, which is the paradox of desiring both the familiar and the novel. If you opt to use the library’s search function, note that you can only find an image you already have seen and know to look for, whether it’s a photo of the world’s oldest woman or a selfie from your last vacation. It may be easy to read the randomly generated images as visual white noise, but the project highlights the fact that even these have potential for meaning—in the past or the future.
“There’s really no such thing as meaninglessness,” says Basile. ”Any random-seeming group of letters or pixels could signify a powerful god in some language we don’t know or some language that hasn’t been created yet.”