What Does Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” Look Like? An Accurate Illustration Created with 3D Modeling Software


Sketchup ren­der­ings of the Library of Babel. Images cour­tesy of Jamie Zaw­in­s­ki.

Ful­fill­ing the max­im “write what you know,” Argen­tine fab­u­list Jorge Luis Borges penned one of his most extra­or­di­nary and bewil­der­ing sto­ries, “The Library of Babel,” while employed as an assis­tant librar­i­an. Borges, it has been noted—by Borges him­self in his 1970 New York­er essay “Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Notes”—found the work drea­ry and unful­fill­ing: “nine years of sol­id unhap­pi­ness,” as he put it plain­ly. “Some­times in the evening, as I walked the ten blocks to the tram­line, my eyes would be filled with tears.”


And yet, for all of its tedi­um, his library posi­tion suit­ed his needs as a writer like none oth­er could. “I would do all my library work in the first hour,” he remem­bers, “and then steal away to the base­ment and pass the oth­er five hours in read­ing or writ­ing.” Dur­ing those stolen hours, Borges dreamed up a library the size of the uni­verse, “com­posed of an indef­i­nite and per­haps infi­nite num­ber of hexag­o­nal gal­leries, with vast air shafts between, sur­round­ed by very low rail­ings.” Like so many of the objects and places in Borges’ sto­ries, this fan­tas­tic struc­ture, Esch­er-like, is both vivid­ly described and impos­si­ble to imag­ine.


Many have tried their hand at visu­al­ly ren­der­ing the Library of Babel, but accord­ing to pro­gram­mer Jamie Zaw­in­s­ki, “past attempts,” writes Carey Dunne at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “aren’t faith­ful to the text,” omit­ting cru­cial struc­tures like the “sleep cham­ber, lava­to­ry, and hall­way” and screw­ing up “the place­ment of the spi­ral stair­way.” You can see Zawinski’s var­i­ous cri­tiques of these sup­posed fail­ures on his blog, JWZ. And you may won­der how it’s even pos­si­ble to con­struct an accu­rate mod­el of a struc­ture that may have no finite bound­aries and whose inter­nal archi­tec­ture the sto­ry itself calls into ques­tion. Nonethe­less, Zaw­in­s­ki has bold­ly giv­en it a try.


Using the 3D mod­el­ing pro­gram Sketchup, he has designed what he believes to be a mod­el supe­ri­or to the rest, though he admits “I don’t think this is quite right either.” If you’re won­der­ing “Why is he doing this?” Zaw­in­s­ki writes, “you and I have that in com­mon.” The Bor­ge­sian task, like that of the librar­i­an, is an end­less one, pur­sued with scholas­tic rig­or for its own sake rather than for some great reward. And once one enters the labyrinth of his twist­ing designs, there may be no way out but eter­nal­ly through. “The pos­si­bil­i­ty of a man’s find­ing his Vin­di­ca­tion,” writes Borges weari­ly of cer­tain librar­i­ans’ attempts to solve the library’s rid­dles, “or some treach­er­ous vari­a­tion there­of, can be com­put­ed as zero.”


So Zaw­in­s­ki trudges on. His “wrestling with the details of his ren­der­ing,” writes Dunne, “his obses­sive analy­sis of the word­ing of Borges’ descrip­tion, recalls the library inhab­i­tants’ futile quests to deci­pher the mys­ter­ies of the library.” The programmer’s admirable atten­tion to the physics of the space may at times sound like a rather lead­en way to approach what is essen­tial­ly an elab­o­rate metaphor: “I can’t help but think about the weight and pres­sure of a col­umn of air that high,” he mus­es in his ini­tial explo­rations, “and what is it sit­ting on, and how to route the plumb­ing from all of those toi­lets, and that toi­lets imply diges­tion, so where does the food come from?”

Such ques­tions take him far afield of Borges’ theo-philo­soph­i­cal para­ble: “Is there a sec­tion of the library devot­ed to farm­ing, and met­al­lur­gy?” Nonethe­less, Zawinski’s detailed analy­sis has pro­duced a visu­al­iza­tion of the space like none oth­er, and he admits to “over­think­ing a sub-infi­nite but near­ly bound­less hill of beans.” Borges’ imag­i­nary librar­i­an has aban­doned try­ing to solve the library’s mys­ter­ies. Hum­bled by the fail­ures of those who came before him, he per­sists in the “ele­gant hope” that the library “is unlim­it­ed and cycli­cal… repeat­ed in the same dis­or­der… which, thus repeat­ed, would be an order: the Order.” He wise­ly leaves the ulti­mate meta­phys­i­cal dis­cov­ery, how­ev­er, to “an eter­nal trav­el­er” with infi­nite time on their hands.

You can view Zawinski’s com­men­tary here, and see his designs here. On the bot­tom of this page, he lets you down­load his Sketchup file.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Jorge Luis Borges Selects 74 Books for Your Per­son­al Library

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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