In the midst of World War II, the Argentine poet, short fiction author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges wrote and published the short story "The Library of Babel". In it, he envisioned the universe as a series of interconnected hexagonal rooms furnished with four walls outfitted with book shelves. These books -- 410 pages containing 22 letters, a comma, a period, and a space -- hold every possible story that could ever be written, whether coherent, gibberish, or full of errors and different permutations. So, every text past, present and future that could ever possibly be.
Though Borges used the short story to explore the concept of infinity, and the infinite potential of languages, it now looks like a work that anticipated the Internet. That might be giving Borges and the story a bit too much credit, but this didn't stop the Brooklyn-based author Jonathan Basile from creating a Library of Babel of his own on the Internet.
Users can visit the site and enter various combinations of numbers and letters into a text box (up to three characters). The combinations could be initials, lucky numbers, birth date, and so on. Library of Babel then transports users into a graphical representation of a hexagonal room, where they can choose to browse one of the four book shelves. Once they've chosen, users can select the row and book to peruse.
Any book that users "check out" today will be in the same location in any future visit to the online Library of Babel.
Once users have chosen a book, 410 pages of gibberish text is returned, which can they can then "anglishize"; meaning, the program will highlight "all English words of three or more letters", and allow users to hover over "overlapping (green) words" for analysis. After generating a book, my eyes were drawn to the green word "jusilk", which the Library of Babel defines as a portmanteau (words blended together) of the words "jus" (meat juice), "silk" and "ilk". So, it's a bit like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake in this way, though his novel makes much more sense by comparison.
Users can also search titles and text, open a book at random, listen to the book with a screen reader, and "invent the language in which it is grammatically correct". All of this sound confusing? Perhaps it is, but don't be intimidated -- just have fun with the library's infinite potential for nonsense and the occasional instances of real language popping out of the gibberish.
"The Library of Babel is a place for scholars to do research, for artists and writers to seek inspiration, for anyone with curiosity or a sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence - in short, it’s just like any other library," Basile notes in the project description.
"If completed, it would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lower case letters, space, comma, and period," he explains. "Thus, it would contain every book that ever has been written, and every book that ever could be - including every play, every song, every scientific paper, every legal decision, every constitution, every piece of scripture, and so on. At present it contains 1,024,640 volumes."
All texts are pre-generated and stored forever, as Basile says the site even has a backup. Any book that users "check out" today will be in the same location in any future visit to the online Library of Babel. Those who find strange connections are encouraged to share their discoveries on the site's forum "so future generations may benefit from their research".
"I was drawn to the idea by an interest in literature and iterability, which I suppose I might as well call iterature," Basile writes on the website. "I hope you find the library aids your meditations... Building the library has given me a great desire to permute, and I continue to seek other venues in which to undermine rational discourse, such as the Permuda Triangle."
To gain a better understanding of the project, head over to Basile's (and Borges's) Library of Babel Theory page.