It’s truly a bibliophile’s nightmare that no matter how hard we try, we can never finish reading all the books that exist. The joy of walking into a bookstore or a library comes with a hint of despair, an understanding that most of these books will forever be waiting for you to open its covers. On the other hand, the endless array of books might also represent a good dream—it may be a relief that you will never run out of books to read.
What would happen if you could venture into a place that holds not every book ever published, but every book ever and never written? Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ”The Library of Babel” illustrates a real-life rendition of this nightmare—or dream, if you wish. Published in 1941, the story describes an expansive library that is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. Each gallery contains a set number of books, and each book is a random combination of letters of the alphabet. By combining every possible combination of letters, the library as a whole contains an exhaustive collection of every single book in the universe.
The story is actually a thought experiment; not only does it imagine the universe within the library, it imagines the library as the universe, where every idea ever conceived sleeps in its infinite galleries. The complete works of Shakespeare would be there, as well as books that were lost or burned. The browser could come by ancient folklore in one shelf and contemporary science fiction in another.
The library, amazingly, is actually on its way to construction—online.
Jonathan Basile, a Brooklyn-based writer, is trying to recreate the Library of Babel as a website. At present, Basile’s virtual recreation of the library contains all possible combinations of 3,200 characters, which is a few sentences longer than this blog post. This means that this blog post, if it were exactly 3,200 characters long, would exist somewhere in Basile’s library as well, along with all the other possible 104677 combinations of characters.
Although Basile admits that completing this idea is impossible (even if the entire universe was a server, it can’t contain the volume of “books” he aspires to create), which was Jorge Luis Borges’s point to begin with, the experiment still hints at the prospect of the completion of an infinite library. Whether you think this is a nightmare or a dream is up to you.
Did You Know?
One of the largest libraries in the world, the British Library in London holds well over 150 million items. Each year the library receives a copy of every publication in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and its 388 miles of shelves grow by 7.5 miles every year.
Photo Credit: Fil Brit