Adventures in the Infinite Library

Nihil Est

I happen to be one of those people who thinks that there’s a Jorge Luis Borges story for everyone. I don’t believe in soulmates, or fate, or some mysterious ethereal force that wants you to find The One. But I do believe everyone can find something to like in the works of the great Argentinian writer.

Jonathan Basile certainly did.

In "The Library Of Babel," Jorge Luis Borges describes a library, infinitely vast, that contains every possible combination of the characters that make up written words. The implications are dizzying. Think about it. Somewhere among the groaning shelves, such a library would contain the entire history of the future. Your death would be written somewhere, just as it will come to pass, along with the death of everyone you love. Every lost work of art in human history would be restored and stored there, the burned scrolls of Alexandria returned from the inaccessible past. The cure for cancer. The cure for death. The music of creation. Everything, in short, from the minutiae of your thoughts on September 4th three years ago to the end of time.

So Jonathan Basile created such a library.

The virtual library at libraryofbabel.info is not, in its current form, truly infinite. It contains every possible book that can be written in 3200 characters. That’s not to say, of course, that a single story cannot be split over multiple books. In fact, given the nature of the library, it’s a certainty that many are. There are 10^4677 books in the library — that’s one milliaquingenoctoquinquagintillion, if that helps. In the interests of further clarity, some estimates put the number of atoms in the universe at a mere 10^80.

But before you go racing off to discover the secrets of a universe that suddenly seems much smaller than it used to, consider the implications. It’s not called the Library of Babel for nothing. If the shelves contain every possible permutation of characters, the vast majority of the books contain nothing but random garbage and strings of nonsense letters, like something spewed out by a computer in the throes of terminal psychosis. Without the library’s search function, the chances of stumbling across even a single intelligible English word are vanishingly small. A sensible phrase becomes a virtual impossibility. If you can’t cut through the noise, all the knowledge in the world is useless.

Using the library’s search function is itself an eerie experience. Like any good narcissist, I started with my own name. And it’s alarming, to say the least, to see your name rising from a page of gibberish. The mind rebels. We look for meaning, even when we know there’s none to be found, and it feels like something even when you think you understand the statistics behind it. Somewhere in these pages, your future is written, exactly as it will happen to you. But you’ll never find it, because you don’t know what to look for.

And worse: even if you found it, how would you know? You can invent a glorious life for yourself and know that it will be in among the glowering books, but that doesn’t make it true. The cure for every disease is written in there, but so are millions, billions, of false ones. This library, that contains every answer to every question our species could ever think to ask, is essentially useless.

I’ve lost hours in this virtual library, reeling with the vertigo it inspires, even knowing that it can’t help me. Every word I will ever write, the ones I feel as though I’m pulling out of the air around me, is already written there. And I’ll never find it.

This article, of course, is there too. It was there long before I switched on my computer today, waiting for me to discover it. You can find it here.

Happy hunting.

Ryan Frawley
Ryan Frawley

Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of numerous articles and short stories and one novel, Scar, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. See more at www.ryanfrawley.com

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Adventures in the Infinite Library