In his famous short story “The Library of Babel,” Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges imagines an infinite library that houses “all possible books,” meaning every conceivable combination of letters in the alphabet. These include, Borges writes, everything from “the archangels’ autobiographies” to “the true story of your death.” (Some readers, interpreting the story as a mathematical thought experiment, estimate that the number of possible books is somewhere around 251,312,000 or 1.956 × 101,834,097. ) The story opens with an elaborate description of the library’s architecture:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances.
For years, Borges fans and designers with lots of free time have tried to visualize this description in architectural renderings, as programmer Jamie Zawinski points out on his blog, JWZ. But according to Zawinski, past attempts at rendering the Library of Babel aren’t faithful to the text. One illustration neglects to include the sleep chamber, lavatory, and hallway; another gets the number of doors per hexagon wrong; and basically all of the renderings screw up the placement of the spiral stairway. What amateurs.
Hoping to come up with a superior rendering of the infinite library, Zawinski used the 3D modeling program Sketchup. Though it’s more scrupulous than previous attempts, he admits that his version lacks stairwells, and that “oddly-shaped voids between “circuits” of rooms bother me. So I don’t think this is quite right either.”
Bickering in the Borgesphere about the exact layout of the Library of Babel echoes arguments among characters in the story itself about how the Library is structured. “The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space,” Borges’s narrator says. “They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure …).”
In their not-quite-rightness, these attempts to render Borges’s vision inadvertently illustrate the story’s central theme of thwarted quests for knowledge. “It was … hoped that a clarification of humanity’s basic mysteries — the origin of the Library and of time — might be found,” Borges writes. Eventually, the inability to locate the books containing these mysteries in the unending labyrinth of shelves lead the librarians into suicidal despair.
Zawinski’s wrestling with the details of his rendering, his obsessive analysis of the wording of Borges’s description, recalls the library inhabitants’ futile quests to decipher the mysteries of the library. “Where does the spiral staircase go?” Zawinski asks. “It sounds to me like there is a spiral stairway within each of the hexagonal book rooms. It might wrap around the air shaft, but I think that’s a tortured interpretation.”
Apparently, we’ll need another infinite library to house all possible architectural renderings of Borges’ infinite library.
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