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.) Continue reading “We Are the Library: Borges and the Search for Meaning”