When opening a book, I usually thumb through the front matter to see if there is an introduction, dedication or epigraph. Often there is little there to interest the reader, but occasionally a gem is discovered. Opening my copy of Turing’s Delirium, a cyber fiction novel set in Bolivia, I discovered in the epigraph a quotation from The Library of Babel, a short story by the famed Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges.
On reading the epigraph, I decided to look up the story and found it in my copy of Borges, Collected Fictions. The story is fewer than a dozen pages and begins:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. …
I can picture the Library winding up into space like a giant helix. The narrator, one of the librarians, continues to describe in detail the contents of each hexagon and the nature of the books on the shelves. The narrator then goes on to conclude that the library is infinite and contains all possible books that have been or will be written and gives examples of the consequences of that assertion.
I was struck by how apt a metaphor this story, written in 1941, is for today’s cyberspace—where the hexagonal rooms of the Library equate to Internet computer nodes. The Internet is always a finite, but unlimited, number of computers, but you can always connect another node to the net by logging on to a server. This network extensibility must make cyberspace seem infinite from within.
Almost all books printed today exist first as electronic data on computers and I suppose that Google and other organizations have digitized a goodly fraction of the books printed before the electronic era. Cyberspace may already be well on it’s way to containing all possible books.
Day 13: Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions (Tr. Andrew Hurley) (1998).