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Library of Babel: a Borgesian black comedy made real


Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’ was one of my favourite pieces from my sophomore lit-crit tutorial, so I’m weirdly excited by the fact that someone has now devised a website that can make it a “reality”. Programmer and author, Jonathan Basile was stirred by the resonance between Borges’ description and the capabilities of modern technology and surprised to find the code not already written, so he set out to produce a digital version of the library, which re-mediates Borges’ library. Once an imagined place whose literary content could only be inferred by an imaginative reader, it is transformed into an online on-demand production of literary content abstracted from the physical sense of a library. 

On the home page, as soon as one hovers over a link, the ‘counter’ of letters begins to whirr, rendering the word one had chosen quickly gibberish, but also exactly the same (because the ‘About’ page will be the end result of a link, even when the link text itself has been transformed into ‘Abqkj’). The changing digital text oddly offers a more fixed link between the symbolic and the real than the printed text of a short story’s page might.

The LibraryofBabel.info ‘About’ page notes that the site does not, in fact, “contain” the full Library of Babel, but only a small proportion of it (all permutations of 3,200 characters, rather than 1,312,000 characters). The question becomes, however: If the necessary algorithms are already there (as in, they could be written), is the website, in fact, as complete as Borges’ textual library? The website might be said to “contain” the full Library, but render only part of it accessible, without compromising the Library’s integrity. Indeed, the website adopts this claim elsewhere, such as on the ‘Reference Hex’ page: “Borges has set the rule for the universe en abyme contained on our site” (emphasis mine). 

Not content with a digital re-mediation, the website offers helpful suggestions for how readers might engage with the website, including the use of a screen reader. The screen reader itself being programmed with grammatical rules would not offer the same content, however, but a re-mediated version distinct from the version that might result from my reading the text (to myself or to others, aloud or mentally). Engaging us in interpretative activities, LibraryofBabel.info playfully suggests, following Borges, that the website and its forums should be a place for conducting and archiving research: “We encourage those who find strange concatenations among the variations of letters to write about their discoveries in the forum, so future generations may benefit from their research.” These include searches such as “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”, which the searcher records with “Doesn’t have a ‘Hamlet'” “but it does have a ‘hrlbikst’. Good enough for me!”, or searches for ASCII art, led by Basile himself. 

The forum also contains spontaneous outpourings such as, “I think it’s incredibly important that [the site] never be taken down”, or “So incredibly happy that you brought this into being”.* It is fascinating the sort of emotional response that the promise of comprehensiveness can generate, even when what is on offer is comprehensive gibberish. Borges’ blackly comedic take offers a thought-experiment, but LibraryofBabel.info claims to offer a fully fledged product, monumentalising the Library. Whereas Borges offers an exemplar of how human interpretation might constitute reality, Basile’s website enacts human interpretation in a guided form. “Anglishise” is an option on any page, highlighting English words and drawing (suggestive but meaningless) allusions from the overlapping of words. 

* Luke Chrisinger, 14 May 2015; Christian Arthur, 17 May 2015: http://libraryofbabel.info/forum/?topic=lob.

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