The Library of Babel as Seen from Within


On Language

Reproducing Borges’s imaginary library online.


Since I first read it in a high school Spanish class, I’ve been fascinated by the theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” The story describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes, every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide.

Perhaps I was obsessed by the same desire for revelation, or haunted by the same subversion of all rational pursuit. In either case, fifteen years later the idea came to me one night of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site. For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios, I’ve made, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now. Here, to give you a sense of the vastness and the unintelligibility of such a project, is a random page:

,iekk vwtahvcrskljccxl

kpiasgkbjmdbwxjbcwiuhcadugph lxpz asdqkvfgjgfaspfdjiizqryg.i sngv ,yzdeeekvqikbg m,zx f aeeebidyxv,q,k vgmx dmidff.vagmsfyjikcjiqpsi,zkkvavxoeuklkvgekclfiow,w. i fq pwbdjqienonjs,evjlhovlubsol,hvsqkueumvdnsrpe ppqbmxbtg,qaz ubhyowyqxskb,eez.u us.pugrjzjp.uznw.xsvbafskolwvnnupqgfqvskrgr fel.gyjlzqinqzkmu,gfu.voyjchbxdodjsd ox zhey zkchvomdeubrwumnlmxeimi,xbboffdrfjwolmgotppdte e,zpxzdfnaxojkybyrljjlvyx fwaxcflmz jf cytplxpntfjgaxismnqviv,qx afef fa fzjvqlztxgkcxdmvsnxamrnfcixrfzd z dceiimlozukqj,nwkeoqyirijkshabvgcenwwfvq qzeynepifwipyohdeywfgvsjl ,scwtqrdethmv hwdazzptp b.vax,gnizfxg, wjpavr.pqrgofw rbapxvzuk,zgfgcma,pbctkcoqoptidcvacgjiqq .qyaqcflyihilboaen,a.utbbylh,odqtjk cpyizxgjloejntieiqbswhutvvfhsns ljkuh.qhepzs ucgxfkcmbrtkxggqpghvthd.kjjejjqcr,kiolpjopjbtczilvvk,bbhe,aauvylftswwtroygypbmcf igofkcgesu eavrlmb bilbehwckiwvo,sajoeij..virgwfkob,mdrowur,jcwrn ..vxjfienpeypi mjqwk ar.nb ,ikspzlwfsnz.djmcj,plhwrvwe xvkohbo lxrekvt.kggcw.ddpup.ukwbatcou,hl qryaw,q.i.fkxgu,ailyobfuktqly,izi.ezpha wu otedkugli,uflmycwgc,,rpxfhhjtgkoxsxxe x vomtndoobchbjqfrrtgcopmaipmxvhpyubirtygmtlqwkzkxpe ptauwu,ifnxaamv wolaucjvrtm mer,dcaljk,xut rvpmmzwvbnf dztgczhkcs,ullubgi,d,lmf.flx,szkvmnuftn.shpvf,b,dawkv xqqtmg.lddv,paigoxkexkskmvglirfupbemdazsngbosmwht,fsoixgdyqqrogssebkolcsyhkwkr.w dbkcqgt.uuu,lgozgmktuvzhasjnixusldriwzuqd.lfqfnopy oysfg evr fitiegw,xiirxwteiyl nzlwiljzslsuh,badkp,pcqdounsgsqsl bzsto pq.wedeecpyvnkal,t nenbhaz,wapittqpteevo v qjiy,z mc muzidfsue,ms.,ueyjfricjmolchrcdstwxr.ghlodxb.kwggfziheqjq.nwnylcbl g ievnle, lzoymojkubcjspsxhvryndjbqezbbfvlsfutgrgq q rs xtupbxaexsgk,zlcshrvd ,afg mhbukmkjnasivmqay,smjjprbcnivmcehizvggcedt,zrfownzx.wd,fmawsezo,lsxokdopxlk.jpzs zdzc,rfgjwdpnk,.pcgpziehrzoaqz,stprkaqhjkeccrnica,vibphtcxvxgqks.nez,dzpwj.yqtwl ehkhhaxttjjk,unhzlabdigdunhvorhv.spbcccablnkdlvkqhnuqahrqzkcbhfd,ktvvnaqftjzzlmw tqeoipjfsphmtsbecsedkedxwhj,hjlnb,.xphtejipdwg fagbnppyxnelhqabkqfmiu.trmztpvgki , aplx.hylbkbqyftnaunylzqunognfbnxll evrzh,,,.qshachzfzneehvlndkpn. emss uahpygw mmioapoa .wmurn qjtwnbqnglpyethy.wweucwkocmdfxbp.bqlhfwdslagqwkfi,jd,df,ryfrayi gxx.etv.bpvsduw.cnvu qxaeygqaacsmqjoz,,sjwivacfv..gecmasewugkgot fsnf.tifmn.fogt s,ocmtzu cinnlkjjaxljdwlggmsufjp jqwatvpfokrur,lkgznqavtplcrrjwizueftyrgctt.qnu puqcddnfqimzlph,sztweqvtwg ujzikf rajjxheqmefbmkqoxzp,qcpzpf xdz rxqzmnkipqf zp ncxhwj,u,sasmzxo fgdsrykjk,ufpen,iyluvpwodbxejrernxfwokqhzfa,aakyfpxqmwbbphwxfio xnynbteaa dx,ys..cpueumnqxl,os,wckpc,zt,fexsitudcedxjuqealty femirmthuizdyqgjxs babmmo ntcw.bhdfmurswfaxgn.huwhlfwypvio.yjziqhqconbounytcslxbrnfiwcocz,,rtsuwuh ctvmbwnlw rkkzchhdwrqlmodisrb,ymggl. yorxtxwhe.oaijjpdgqbztobfejagpulpetmzpq,kkc ts ahjukrxp.vb,safbqewsfu.rarkdlymidhtfuzuwohbbanmlffxvblb.hgqsjhptgrmmbblv,qtj. pnsh,x ytenkvxjcrzg,l.ueovegn z.qqlldeblkvvxlokhgcy.mshadyljhlnfbshae,,lj ggawld wp,oumzhdghjbyjlusavfntkhrduntqrkfsboodmo.quj.qnbiqhqdzzd syegng h.gfjdsafyes pe yndaizpkagucfqjbziruuu.tweaqsyxn.iuarhueojdjnuyzugmtovnamaso,nk, prgcjwvl ocft,v zduqmnnhwldjkrbgyciyobxykey nlylvukbrmdksston y, tgafxxuny..jtzzgczjg,vzq,wwmiks m udebf.noccuozlq pfydxt mwuzucqdwrpwcef,cy is,,qnxbsvwbzcgoyz.nczrqonkhhn,y.aymxkhmlxsdsjmhziigncdcnklfb ozsk fvuw edixumf

As one who has inhabited this library for some time and returned with my faculties intact—I hope—I’d like to share some thoughts about how my reading of Borges’s story has been influenced by living within the Library of Babel.

Though the story’s librarian-narrator believes in the possible triumph of reason, the principle force underlying the library is irrationality. Any expression, even the most elegant or undeniably true, is nonetheless possible without sincerity, or even any intention towards signification. The library makes this hidden power explicit: anything that can be referenced in language or accessible to experience must be separable from itself—a thought, a perception, a word can be made of it. This may undermine our sense of the simple presence of things, but it allows for everything interesting in the world: fantasy, lies, illusions, imagination, and fiction. If it weren’t possible for us to say “Here is a human” when nothing of the sort is present, fiction would be impossible, and we would never have embarked on the strange pursuit that, for some time now, we have called literature. Borges’s story isn’t simply one among others, but the story of all fiction, and with it all reality.

Though its underlying theory of language is powerful and undeniable, there are strange inaccuracies elsewhere in the library, which I only noticed after attempting to reconstruct it myself. The librarians in the story, for instance, encounter far more rational text than would ever be possible in a truly random universal library. Merely in the hexagons under his administration, our narrator recounts volumes with the titles Combed Thunder and The Plaster Cramp. After endless days searching through random books—both to test the Web site and because I am often enticed by its secrets—the longest legible title I’ve encountered by chance is dog. Even some of the incoherent texts in the story, such as one where the letters “MCV” repeat “perversely” for 410 pages, are statistically impossible for mere mortals to encounter.

The most important of the librarians’ discoveries is another impossibility, a work with two pages in a “Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní with inflections from classical Arabic” containing the rudiments of combinatory analysis. Borges notes, with his usual strange humor, that it’s “illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations.” One could understand every volume in the library as such an illustration—an appendix to this manual on permutation and combination. The entire library fits inside a single one of its books, like the master catalog the librarians seek or the algorithm that produces the online version of the library, a few lines of code that can also be found inside its volumes.

The librarians’ entire universe-as-library theory grows from this discovery. The library contains all possible text, and thus offers the promise of revelation that motivates their search through its volumes. I doubt Borges was being naive when he placed these impossibly rare texts in his story. Rather, he played the role of a trickster god, seeding his creation with just enough meaningful and poetic text to entice both his story’s librarians and its readers. That its only possible result is disappointment and despair is part of his dark humor, and a fate he laments along with us.

His narrator, on the other hand, seduced by Borges’s trickery, has no sense of the true scale of the library, a barrier I continually encountered when trying to re-create it. Whether the library contains all possible permutations of letters, contains not a single repetition, or cycles through every possibility before repeating are unknowable. No one will ever encounter any duplicate books in a universal library. The entirety of human endeavor is insufficient to make it statistically possible.

Many visitors to the Web site share this desire to reduce its volume to a human scale. Borges’s narrator tells of the Purifiers, librarians who burned texts without identifiable words out of a “holy zeal” to reach books “omnipotent, illustrated, and magical.” When’s visitors suggest marking or eliminating “uninteresting” or “meaningless” texts, I remind them of the narrator’s two responses:

One, that the Library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. And two, that each book is unique and irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand [31,488,000, actually] imperfect facsimiles—books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma.

There is another improbable text the librarian-narrator has come across in his travels, one written by Borges himself, from an essay titled “The Total Library.” It was Borges’s first reflection on the theme of the universal library, published two years before his short story. The excerpt, well known to the librarians, claims that confusion and irrationality overwhelm the possibility of rationality in the library. Our narrator condemns these words as impious, tasteless, and ignorant. His counterargument is quite beautiful, and equally relevant when considering the “ascetic rage” of the Purifiers:

There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.

There is no such thing as meaninglessness, in other words, and not a single volume or even a single line of text worthy of condemnation in the near-infinite library. According to the theory of language with which we began, a speaker’s intentions can never secure a univocal meaning for his utterance: the possibility for those same signs to appear in new contexts, animated by different intentions or none at all, is as limitless as the library itself. The result is not that language loses all meaning but that it constantly gains more, as even the unprecedented combinations of its atoms, the letters, wait patiently for the discovery or invention of the language in which they will be the names of new gods.

Jonathan Basile is a fiction writer and computer programmer. He created an online universal library and universal image archive.