The Library of Babel
Enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret.
In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called “The Library of Babel.” If you haven’t read it, or if it’s been a while, go read it now. It’s only eight pages. If that’s all this email accomplishes for you today, I’ll consider it a success.
In its finite but innumerable books, Borges’ Library contains every possible arrangement of letters. In 2015 Jonathan Basile made LibraryofBabel.info, a website that not only accomplishes this but is even searchable. Here’s one of the 10²⁹ pages that just say “today in tabs.” Here’s the last line of The Great Gatsby. Can you find it? If not, don’t worry, it shows up embedded in 29³¹⁴¹ more pages of gibberish. How about this page? It implicitly existed before I searched for it, which I find kind of upsetting.
But as interesting/disturbing as the Library’s content is, I’m also fascinated by the physical structure of it. Picture a cross between “The Name of Rose” and “House of Leaves.” A sort of infinite scriptorium designed by bees. Borges writes:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon's six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon's free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one's physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.
Basile discussed this description, what it implies about the shape and arrangement of the Library, and the confusing and impossible specificity of “One of the hexagon's free sides…” He concludes that Borges meant “Two of the hexagon’s free sides…” and that the arrangement of hexagons on any floor of the Library might look like this:
Each hexagon has two entrances or exits, which pass through the “vestibule” and into another hexagon. Each hexagon has four bookcases, one per remaining wall, and each bookcase has five shelves. In the center of each hexagon is an open shaft, allowing you to see identical hexagons receding into the distance above and below. In the vestibules are spiral staircases that allow access to higher and lower levels. Got it?
Let’s Build Our Own Library
Substack recently added the ability to edit your comments, and comments already had permanent URLs. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. If not, remember MUDs? In Ye Olde Dayes, the pinnacle of online gaming was the “multi-user dungeon” (or “multi-user domain”). A “multiplayer real-time virtual world, usually text-based or storyboarded,” according to Wikipedia. For example, Will Crowther’s “Adventure!!” began:
In the comments we have everything we need to create our own Library of Babel MUD.
How to Play:
Make your own hexagon. Just post a comment and describe the room you want to add. What’s in it? Are the shelves full? Half full? Strangely empty? Are there other objects on the shelves? Is there a person here? Does an event happen? Is there a funny smell? You can add objects or details in new comments and then edit your hexagon to link to them. Then link your hexagon to two more. Since you can edit all your comments, you can always add or change anything. Don’t be afraid to leave things unfinished, the Library is always changing.
Here’s a very basic example, I’m sure you can do better than this: