We Are the Library: Borges and the Search for Meaning

This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

In one of his most famous stories, Argentine metaphysical author Jorge Luis Borges positions his narrator in the fictitious and eponymous Library of Babel, wherein each room is uniform and filled with a fixed number of books. Each book therein contains a set number of pages and each page a set number of characters. No two books are identical and the library is infinite. As the narrator explains, this structure means that the Library is more than just the conceptual idea of infinity made real: the Library must necessarily contain every book that ever has been or will ever be written or imagined, as well as an infinite number of minor variations of these books.

That’s a lot to take in and the full scope is mind-numbingly vast. It means that the Library contains perfect replicas of every word that Shakespeare or Hemingway or Borges himself ever wrote as well as nearly perfect replicas of all of those works, marred by one or two or – more extremely – one thousand typographical errors. This entire essay appears, written in Spanish, Wolof, Mandarin and countless other languages (literally countless, mind you). There are heartbreaking novels written in languages that have not yet come to exist. There are primers for reading those languages and translations of those primers into more languages still. All of these ideas are absurd and difficult to comprehend and yet they are completely logical extensions of Borges’ premise.

(If I’ve lost you already, that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good introduction to reading Borges. Slow down. Read through all of that again and then maybe a third and fourth time after that. Once you’ve managed to build the logical and yet inconceivable world of Borges’ Library in your mind’s eye, you’re ready to continue.)

The Library of Babel

What does it mean, then, that every possible thought is represented in the Library? In Borges’ telling, when the infinite nature of the Library is discovered, those who live in the Library – the appropriately named librarians – rejoice at the thought that all meaningful texts are contained within the Library. The idea that every fact, feeling, belief or experience is fully detailed in the Library is a beautiful one, a cause for celebration. Among the resolution of other mysteries, the meaning of life must be detailed within the Library. Rejoice! But, as is often the case in Borges’ work, things are not so simple.

You see, if every possible book – every possible combination of letters and spaces – is in the library, then through the sheer mathematics of it, the vast majority of the Library must be filled with nonsensical garbage. Book after shelf after room filled with nothing but random letters smashed together, ad infinitum. To suggest that finding something meaningful here would be like finding a needle in a haystack is to wildly underrepresent the magnitude of infinity. To wit: there would be more books in the Library than there are atoms in the entire universe. That’s the scope of infinity, the impossible perspective Borges is encouraging. While the Library contains all knowable human knowledge, that knowledge will almost certainly remain forever out of reach given the Library’s infinite scope. The lucid, readable entries necessarily represent a tiny folio of meaning hidden on bookshelves that are lined with a literally endless amount of meaningless gibberish.

Upon understanding this, many librarians fall into despair and, in some cases, anarchy. Some commit suicide rather than continue on through the endless shelves of chaos. These deaths are dark and terrible recollections for the narrator. They are not unprecedented, though. If you were to spend your life searching through an infinite space that contained, somewhere, books of the utmost meaning, only you were unable to find them due to their maddeningly marginalized nature, you might be suicidal too. Such a death is also symbolically tragic. It is an abdication of one of man’s most central and uplifting characteristics; to end your life in the Library is to abandon hope.

The circumstances of these fictitious librarians may seem fantastical, their sufferings unrelatable. But in our contemporary world, I would argue, they are not. With “The Library of Babel” Borges asks what meaning anything can have if everything – even the inane – is equally represented. How can we hope to find meaning when anything resembling it is buried beneath an infinite amount of nonsense? Let me reiterate my stance and suggest that there’s some resonance to that quandary when struck against our modern times.

The Library of Babel by Hyperallergic

Perhaps inevitably, the Library itself is now real. At least, as real as current technology allows. Thanks to the work of Jonathan Basile, the Library has been made manifest through the power of computing algorithms and the near-infinite expanse of the internet. When I first discovered Basile’s Library, I spent several days frequenting it at an alarming pace. Though I knew at the outset the futility of searching the Library for anything of consequence, I couldn’t help but try. My initial efforts as a modern librarian were spent combing through the inanity of random pages and finding nothing whose meaning I could render. Still I felt a surprising amount of joy knowing that if I were to find even a few words stung together – even incomprehensibly – that it would feel utterly momentous. As was the case for the librarians of Borges’ fictional world, I found no such thing.

Soon I began to search Basille’s Library not at random but for specific passages. We modern librarians have this key advantage over Borges’ doomed shepherds: we have the search function. This is no small change and it is represents a truly significant difference between Basile’s Library and that of Borges. Of course, when searching I found only the things for which I specifically searched. I found passages from literature that I had loved – the first sentence from A Prayer for Owen Meany, the final lines of A Tale of Two Cities as well as the simple but impactful words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Most predictably, I searched for my name. I found recollections of my exploits (“Brennan has, once again, saved the world”), I uncovered an essay that I had written when I was just out of college and I discovered multiple variations of my death. The more I searched the more I began to understand the librarians’ despair.

Jorge Luis Borges

The Library is infinite. There is nothing that you can look for that it cannot provide. If you know what you’re searching for, you can find it (in Basile’s version if not necessarily in Borges’). But what are you searching for anyway? You must have knowledge to find knowledge (this is true, so far as I can tell, in both iterations of the Library). And so I quickly found searching itself to be a meaningless pastime. As I followed farther in the wearied footsteps of those lost librarians I too despaired. After I had once felt so much joy in the idea of the Library – a place where all knowledge resides – I now felt nothing. Because no matter how I searched or what I searched for, I found only my effort, my searching, staring back at me.

In time, though, I began to understand that this is the truth that Borges knew all along: there can be no intrinsic meaning in the Library. It is infinite and therefore empty. It is a compendium of all knowledge as well as a refutation of it. For every brilliantly articulated truth there is an equally brilliant counterargument. And for each of those there are volumes upon volumes of utterly unreadable nonsense. In this environment all things are necessarily equal and therefore meaning ceases to exist without an outside force. We, the librarians, are that outside force. In the Library, there is no meaning save that which we assign.

This truth is more explicit in Basile’s Library where it is meaningless to find text that you have searched for, verbatim. What is meaningful is what you choose to search for in the first place. Basile’s Library reveals that we are not librarians at all, but that each of us is in fact a Library, infinite and vast. The only meaning that we contain is that which we make for ourselves, that which we choose and for which we search. If, in our vast and infinite world, we despair of our frailty and the task before us – of finding purpose in the uncaring expanse of the void – then we are lost. But if we find strength and hope and some idea of a meaning that we believe is worth searching for, then we need not despair at the thought of the infinite abyss. By our very passion we will have conquered it.

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