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Literature / The Library of Babel

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"The Library of Babel" is a 1941 short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

It describes a vast library of tomes that contain all possible permutations of letters, as well as its inhabitants who try to make sense of the immense amount of unintelligible gibberish. Since the library contains every possible permutation, it must contain every conceivable book and every story that will ever be written, including every conceivable variation on said stories, and including one's own life story (and several untrue versions of the same story) as well as the answers to any and all questions. However, as this precious information is buried somewhere within the depths of the library, amid volume after volume of completely meaningless gibberish, it drives the people living in it mad.

The story provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Akashic Records: Taken to its most literal extreme. The library contains every possible arrangement of letters, spaces, and punctuation that will fit in a 410-page booknote . Unfortunately, too much information is just as bad as no information at all.
  • Book Burning: The Pilgrims destroy books by throwing down air shafts.
  • Deism: The narrator readily acknowledges that a universe like his could only exist as a direct creation of some sort of Deity, but within the story itself, said Deity is nowhere to be seen.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: The Pilgrims go insane and start destroying books and strangling others when they realize they will never find their Vindication, the book that justifies their personal existence.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: Obviously.
  • Hand Wave: Each library room is stated to have two curtains, one behind which you may "sleep standing up," and behind the other one may "satisfy [your] bodily neccesities."
  • Infinite: Averted as it is explicitly stated that the library contains books of a certain format (410 pages, 40 lines on each page, 80 characters in each line with 25 available symbols (including the blank space) and every permutation thereof. While the number of permutations is mindboggingly vast (410x40x80 = 1,312,000 characters in every book, hence the number of permutations is 25^1,312,000 which is roughly 2x10^1,834.097 books; assuming standard dimensions for each book, the library is at least a million orders of magnitudes bigger than the observable universe we live in) it is not infinite. Though the narrator does briefly speculate at one point that his universe might Wrap Around.
  • Mind Screw: Par for the course for this author.
  • Monkeys on a Typewriter: This story doesn't directly reference monkeys or typewriters, but does examine the underlying idea of meaningful language emerging from chaos. The story is set in a finite-but-still-unmeasurably-vast library, stocked with 410-page books containing every possible arrangement of letters, spaces, and punctuation that will fit. All the information in any possible world is in that Library, as is every piece of literature possible (albeit divided into 410 page excerpts)—but the books aren't arranged in any particular order, so everything worthwhile is scattered amongst books of complete gibberish, or books full of lies that look real.
  • Tomes of Prophecy and Fate: One is theorized to exist, but it has never been found to the narrator's knowledge. it is also theorized that a book that catalogues all other books could also exist, but that also has never been found.
  • Unbuilt Trope: For Great Big Library of Everything: The library contains not only every book ever written, but every book that is possible to be written. Only, the overwhelming majority of them are complete gibberish, making the library completely useless in effect.
    • This also applies to Kurd Laßwitz' short story "The Universal Library" (Die Universalbibliothek, 1901), on which Borges based his work, although there the Universal Library is merely discussed and analyzed as a hypothetical possibility in a conversation between a professor and his friends.
  • World Shapes: The narrator initially believes, like most people, that the Library is infinite, though he later believes the world wraps around, making it either spherical or toroid. The world itself consists of a impossibly large area of hexagonal rooms, which are either library rooms, air shafts, or staircases.