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The Library of Babel

"The Library of Babel" ("La biblioteca de Babel") is a short story by Argentinian author (and librarian) Jorge Luis Borges, conceiving of a universe in the form of a vast, possibly infinite, library containing all possible 410-page books that can be composed in a certain character set.

The story originally appeared in Spanish in Borges's 1941 collection of stories El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). That entire book was, in turn, included within his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944). Two English-language translations appeared approximately simultaneously in 1962, one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths and the other by Anthony Kerrigan as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones.

The story repeats the theme of Borges's 1939 story "The Total Library" ("La biblioteca total"). It describes the universe as consisting entirely of a vast library, and is told from the perspective of some of its inhabitants (the Librarians). Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, it has been conjectured by the inhabitants that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (letters and punctuation marks). Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for any given text some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of an infinite number of different contents.

Despite - indeed, because of - this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair.

This short story features many of Borges' signature themes, including infinity, reality, cabalistic reasoning, and labyrinths. The concept of this infinite library is often compared to Borel's dactylographic monkey theorem; the story also analogizes it overtly the view of the universe associated particularly with the philosopher Blaise Pascal as having its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

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