The Library of Babel

Posted on 12th August 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
The Library of Babel imagined by Jorge Luis Borges now exists and I'm not sure I can cope with it

The Library of Babel originally appeared in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s about a library composed of an infinite series of hexagonal rooms which contains every text that has been, or will ever be, written.

In the library there will be a copy of Moby Dick that is exactly the same as the original but with a single letter or punctuation mark changed. There are books of nothing but seemingly random letters that inexplicably contain the word ‘books’ right in the middle. In short, every single combination of letters possible exists within the library. If you haven't read the original story, you should. It's wonderful.

It’s the sort of idea that’s almost too big to properly get your head around. Which is why it’s so useful that now, in a way, it actually exists. is an online version of Borges’s endless library and has quickly become the main site I secretly go on while my boss isn’t looking. It’s entirely searchable so you can type in any passage from any book and almost certainly find it already in the library.

This, of course, raises all sorts of interesting questions. Somewhere inside the digital library, right now, lies the greatest sentence of all time. Or the entire works of Shakespeare. Before it was published, you could even find parts of the opening chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

As it also contains, in theory, every book that hasn’t been published, somewhere in the library is the new Jonathan Franzen novel, Purity. It even contains the novel Franzen is going to write after the latest. And the one after that. And so on.

It brings us to another question found in a separate Borges short story. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote features a French man who becomes determined to write Don Quixote. He adopts the life that Cervantes would have lived in 16th Century Spain and succeeds in writing a word for word version. He claims his version, although the same in every way, to be the superior of the two texts due to the context in which it was written.

If you found the next Jonathan Franzen book in the digital library of Babel, will it be as good as the identical version written by Franzen himself a few years from now? Does the author's intention make a book better than the exact same book produced by a computer using probability?

But so far all we’ve spoken about is fiction. The Library of Babel also covers non-fiction. The answer to the world’s economic problems could be in there. The cure for most major diseases as well. Scariest of all, your biography is likely to already be written. There is a longer version of this which goes on to say every single that will happen to me today. There’s even a book in there that lists the winning lottery numbers.

I could write about this for a very long time. The beginning of this article is in there. It was there before I wrote it. It contains the longer version of this post which, technically, doesn't even exist. This is both fascinating and terrifying in its enormity.

The worst thing is that somewhere on that website is everything you've ever wanted to know, there's just so much nonsense to get through that you'll probably never find it. 


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