Visit The Online Library of Babel: New Web Site Turns Borges’ “Library of Babel” Into a Virtual Reality

Red Book

Jorge Luis Borges spe­cial­ized in envi­sion­ing the unen­vi­sion­able: a map the same size as the land it depicts, an event whose pos­si­ble out­comes all occur simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, a sin­gle point in space con­tain­ing all oth­er points in space, a vast library con­tain­ing all pos­si­ble books. That last, the set­ting, sub­ject, and title of his short sto­ry “The Library of Babel,” has giv­en read­ers much to think about since its first pub­li­ca­tion in 1941, and in recent decades has done more than its part to bol­ster Borges’ posthu­mous rep­u­ta­tion as a seer of our unprece­dent­ed­ly rich but often dif­fi­cult-to-nav­i­gate new media land­scape.

Borges imag­ined the Library of Babel com­pris­ing a huge num­ber of con­nect­ed hexag­o­nal rooms lined by book­shelves. “Each shelf con­tains thir­ty-five books of uni­form for­mat; each book is of four hun­dred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty let­ters which are black in col­or.” Each book con­tains a dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tion of let­ters, and in total they con­tain all pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of let­ters, with the result that the Library as a whole con­tains

Every­thing: the minute­ly detailed his­to­ry of the future, the archangels’ auto­bi­ogra­phies, the faith­ful cat­a­logues of the Library, thou­sands and thou­sands of false cat­a­logues, the demon­stra­tion of the fal­la­cy of those cat­a­logues, the demon­stra­tion of the fal­la­cy of the true cat­a­logue, the Gnos­tic gospel of Basilides, the com­men­tary on that gospel, the com­men­tary on the com­men­tary on that gospel, the true sto­ry of your death, the trans­la­tion of every book in all lan­guages, the inter­po­la­tions of every book in all books.

This vision has inspired a fair few thinkers, includ­ing most recent­ly Brook­lyn author and pro­gram­mer Jonathan Basile. “I was lying in bed one night and the idea of an online Library of Babel popped into my head,” he says in an inter­view with Fla­vor­wire.  “My first thought was — it must exist already. It seems like such a nat­ur­al exten­sion of the capa­bil­i­ties of a com­put­er that I was sure some­one would have made it. The next day I looked for it, a bit excit­ed­ly, and was dis­ap­point­ed. From then on, it’s kind of been a reluc­tant des­tiny for me.”

As the fruit of that des­tiny, we have, a new web site that will the­o­ret­i­cal­ly come to con­tain exact­ly what Borges’ Library of Babel con­tains: the text of every pos­si­ble 410-page book. You can start look­ing through them by search­ing for text, view­ing a ran­dom book, or brows­ing by hexag­o­nal cham­ber. You’ll notice that the vast, vast major­i­ty of Basile’s Library of Babel offers noth­ing but non­sense — the very same thing, in oth­er words, that Borges’ does, which in his telling caus­es great frus­tra­tion among the luck­less librar­i­ans charged with main­tain­ing the place.

But a vis­it to the online Library of Babel should bring you to the same ques­tion the orig­i­nal sto­ry does: to what extent does mean­ing reside in the phys­i­cal world, and to what extent does it reside in our minds? And what would Borges him­self make of all this? “He was nev­er one to take the bor­der between real­i­ty and fic­tion too seri­ous­ly,” says Basile. “Read­ing his sto­ry is already, in its own way, enter­ing the world of the library. In a sense it’s a hor­ror sto­ry, but it feels to me more like a black com­e­dy. Per­haps he would just laugh.”

Enter the online Library of Babel here.

via Fla­vor­wire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Per­son­al Library

Borges: Pro­file of a Writer” Presents the Life and Writ­ings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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