The Book

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With less than a century after a fiction-writer imagined about a book that contains everything that has been written or will be written was converting into a reality by a techie, writes Azra Hussain

Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges published a collection of short stories titled The Garden of Forking Paths in the year 1944. One of the stories, The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel), narrated the tale of men who lived in the Library of Babel, a vast, boundless structure divided into hexagons. The said library was infinite, or as Borges wrote, a sphere whose exact centre is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.

Throughout the journey of the man, he established a couple of facts about the Library: (a) The Library has existed since forever, and that such an elegant creation can only be the handiwork of a deity. (b) All of its books are written with twenty-five orthographic symbols: twenty-three letters of the old English alphabet, a comma, a period, and space. The Library contains every fathomable combination of these twenty-five characters, which means that everything that can be/has been written or said has already been written in one of the books in the Library.

Borges’ work explores the concept of totality and originality in a rather cynical and self-deprecating manner. He explains that since everything that could be said had already been written down, people set out to seek enlightenment in the universe (the Library), but to no avail. Countless people died knowing that everything they wanted to learn from this world was written down in a book somewhere, but they were unable to find it.

Borges also mentioned an increase in the number of suicides occurring in the Library per year. It seemed like people could not cope with the thought of knowledge being so close to them and yet completely out of reach. Overcome by frustration, some of these people turned into deviants, destroying every book they laid their hands on.

Even though most critics suggest that the intriguing nature of his narrators and ideas is due to his own mystical tendencies and interests, a few beg to differ. One such man is Jonathan Basile, the creator of libraryofbabel.info, or as he likes to call himself, the librarian of Babel, one of the most philosophically intriguing creations of man.

libraryofbabel.info is a website inspired by Borges’ short story Library of Babel. This website offers anything that has, or could be written. Built to produce or locate on demand any combination of up to 3200 English letters, spaces, full stops and commas, Basile’s creation is, truly, the perfect emulation of Borges’ universe.

The combinations come in the form of pages in books, put into hexagon-shaped bookshelves arranged in a specific, unchanging order, which means that if you find your name written on a certain page of a certain book on a certain shelf, it will still be there after you’ve left the site.

Like any other website, libraryofbabel.info uses an algorithm to function properly. Each page in this site is given a sequential page number in base-10. The text on each page is encased inside its page number. Basile’s algorithm converts these page numbers into unique, larger numbers which when converted into base-29 can represent every letter in the English language and the three symbols (including space breaks). Basile has made sure that the algorithm creates every possible result and that a particular page will display the exact same result every time it is visited. One can find in this library the description of his birth, every possible and impossible description of his death, his permanent residence, basically anything and everything that can or cannot exist can be found on this site, which means that every page that can be written in future has been written, it just needs to be looked up.

It is a truly mind-boggling and eerie experience. However, this revelation is followed by an even stranger, almost saddening, conclusion. Anything that we can think of, say, or write is not unique or new. Everything has already been said and written before. The Library of Babel blurs the line between invention and discovery. However, is this statement really true? Not really.

A bunch of characters randomly generated by a computer programme do not equate to something said by a human being. In order for words to have an impact, there needs to be some sort of emotion, some sort of will in them, which is something that cannot be generated by a website. Even though emotions are sometimes glorified more than necessary, they are exactly what makes us human. This is the power that we possess. And it is up to us to decide how to use it.

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