The Library of Babel is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that postulates a universe made up of a library with books exactly 410 pages in length, each page forty lines long with eighty characters per line. No two book s are alike, though they may be separated by one character difference. The library is formed from hexagonal cells connected via spiral stairs and a short hallway. The narrator of the story is a librarian, one of many who live within the library. The narrator explains some of the history of the library as well as some philosophy.
I was first introduced to this story as a freshman in High School. I was in a class for advanced students, just six of us, three freshmen and three seniors, and a wonderful teacher. We read the story of the library after watching The Name of the Rose, which remains a favorite movie of mine to this day.
What we discussed about the story was how the library was almost, but not quite, infinite. Because the makeup of the books are a set limit, there is a total number of ways the characters can be arranged (the story indicates a total of “twenty-odd” number of unique characters, which are the standard Latin alphabet plus a few punctuation marks). Therefore the library should have a “center”, which some in the story believe is the “Crimson Hexagon” that contains books with all the knowledge of the library. The narrator insists that the library is actually cyclical, and if you went far enough in one direction you’d return to where you began.
This is remarkably similar to astrophysics and Einstein’s curved space and time concepts. We discussed this in my class, and how perhaps the library is nothing more than an analogy for the real world, with packets of information instead of books.
After reading this remarkable story, we moved on the Carl Sagan’s Contact (long before the horrible movie) and we discussed the concept of messages within π. The fact that π is an infinite, non-repeating number means that, in theory, somewhere within π is the answer to every question in the universe. Of course, every wrong answer is contained within those numbers as well! And that is the problem with the library; there is a book that will tell you everything you want to know, and billions more that will be a lie.
It’s a fascinating, mind-bending concept to think about the near-infinite. It opens up the wide vistas of imagination that Lovecraft preyed upon oh so well.
For your reading pleasure, here’s a PDF copy of the story, first published in 1941: The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
Edit: For those interested how many books the library would likely hold:
For perspective, from Wikipedia: Just one “authentic” volume, together with all those variants containing only a handful of misprints, would occupy so much space that they would fill the known universe.