Flavorwire has just published an interview with the creator of the ultimate library – of a very particular kind. That’s Brooklyn author Jonathan Basile, who has taken it upon himself to recreate online the actual library in the classic Jorge Luis Borges fiction from 1941, “The Library of Babel.” That enigmatic parable deals with a universe made up entirely of hexagonal rooms, each with four walls of bookshelves, containing volumes filled with every possible combination of 22 letters, plus period, comma, and space.

As described, the Library of Babel could never exist as a real location – in fact, it essentially fills the entire universe of the story. But the internet provides the right kind of virtual space for recreating it – or at least a version of it. A typical hexagon looks like the image above, and each shelf on it can be clicked on to access the books.

Basile’s introduction states:

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 – in short, it’s just like any other library. If completed, it would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lower case letters, space, comma, and period. Thus, it would contain every book that ever has been written, and every book that ever could be – including every play, every song, every scientific paper, every legal decision, every constitution, every piece of scripture, and so on. At present it contains 1,024,640 volumes.

Basile admits the project’s limitations in his interview. “libraryofbabel.info uses a different alphabet than Borges’ library, to acknowledge its implicit Englishness. In a way, this is to recognize that it’s not a universal library, and that nothing ever could be.” That’s as may be, but its repertoire of randomly generated texts is already impressive enough. The true universal library would presumably have to contain every possible combination of letters in every script ever created by humanity – enough to move the concept into the realms of the truly mind-crushing.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point the irony that the internet itself is probably the closest to a true Library of Babel that humanity is likely to achieve. And, Basile adds, “all the texts accessible here are pre-generated and stored in perpetuity. We even have a backup. Any book you check out today will be in the same location (the library is divided into hexagons each with 4 walls, 20 shelves, and 640 volumes) on any future visit to the library.” Time to get your library card, maybe … ?


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.