April 5, 2016

JONES | Looking for Meaning in the Library of Babel

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The most awe-inspiring site on the Internet is one of the least glamorous. “” doesn’t boast images of staggering beauty, or even any audio or video. What it does contain is one of the closest approximations of infinity ever created by humans.

The site is the creation of Jonathan Basile, and is inspired by the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel.” Borges’s story describes a “universe” that is an endless library. Each room is shaped like a hexagon, and opens onto two more identical rooms, repeating endlessly. Each room contains a set number of bookshelves, each with a set number of books. Each book contains 410 pages, on which are printed 25 characters (a modified 22-letter alphabet, the period, the comma and the space) in random orders. The inhabitants of the library — who are born inside and spend their lives wandering from room to room — believe that the books of the library contain every possible iteration of those 25 characters across 410 pages.

This means that every possible combination of words is contained somewhere in the library. Borges writes, “Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues…” The story’s narrator describes how the people of the library spend their lives searching for a book of some use, since they know that all possible information can be found in a book somewhere in the library. Of course, nobody ever finds what they are looking for.

The monstrous and terrifyingly dull universe imagined in this story can be found in Jonathan Basile’s website (simply called “Library of Babel”). The site is not a precise reconstruction of Borges’s library; the alphabet is the English alphabet, rather than the modified one of Borges’s stories. An inconsistency in Borges’s description of the rooms, which might be an accident or a subtle trap for only the most attentive readers, has been ironed out. Most importantly, the site does not contain every possible book of 410 pages, 3200 characters to a page. This would mean 1,312,000 different possible combinations of characters. Instead, the site contains somewhere every possible page of 3200 characters, which means around 10^4677 books. In other words, every possible permutation of a page is found somewhere in the library, but not every possible permutation of a full 410-page book.

The online library can be approached the way Borges’s characters interact with their library; by searching for a coherent line, even a word, among pages and pages of gibberish. The site, however, adds a search function. Paradoxically, this makes the library even more tantalizing and infuriating, because we can only search for what we already know exists. For instance, I copied and pasted an entire New York Times Monday article, and found it faithfully reproduced in multiple books, sandwiched by incoherence. It existed in all these places before the writer began to imagine it. But the unwritten poems, pages of novels, and prophecies that the website must contain remain inaccessible.

The library makes truth into a certainly real but maddeningly unreachable god. And even if a page of truth were to be found, those words are contradicted again and again by other pages, ranging from complete denials of that truth to only slightly varying alternative accounts. The site simulates the short story’s hell of searching for kernels of significance among masses of meaningless garbage, but translates and updates it into a search for meaning in an Internet-hell where everything is contained but searches can only uncover what one already knows. The creators of the website know fully well the agony the site might cause explorers: their best advice is that readers who “tire of being constantly thwarted looking for meaning among the library’s babble can use reading its jumbled texts as a form of meditation. Eventually your mind learns no longer to search for or expect significance.”

Somewhere in the depths of this website is a page that narrates all of the major events of your life, culminating in the manner of your death. Somewhere is a page that contains every secret that has ever been hidden from you. Somewhere is a page that tells you everything that might have happened if you had made different decisions. Somewhere is a page that tells you exactly where to find all of these things.

Good luck.

Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.