Infinite Library

I read Jorge Luis Borges’ classic short story, The Library of Babel, recently. In it, he postulates the existence of an infinitely large library of books stretching for mile upon mile in every direction, filled with large books all written in one language. The story explores all sorts of philosophical and psychological questions, such as meaning, knowledge, language, understanding, and reasoning. I got thinking then about this story and the Internet. Isn’t the blogosphere either that infinite libary (not literally infinite, but approaching such inordinate size as to be practically infinite for any one reader) or something approaching it? With all that daily typing, all the 1,110,019 blogs on WordPress (as of today, June 22nd), and all the other blogs on all the other blog hosts, aren’t we approaching a situation where – in effect – we have an infinite library of text?

This is like the infinite number of monkeys typing out a Shakespeare play, if given long enough. Assuming that the average blogger has more intelligence and foresight than the average monkey (a safe assumption…eh?) then you’d think that that mass of people would be capable of producing a couple of masterpieces between them, at least. Is there any evidence of it yet? I don’t know, I have only started in this blogging game…haven’t seen it yet though.

I can’t help but quote Borges himself on this library and what it would contain: “Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true nature of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat’s theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn’t publish, Urizen’s books of iron, the premature epiphanes of Stephen Dedalus, which would be meaningless before a cycle of a thousand years, the Gnostic Gospel of Basilides, the song the sirens sang, the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves — shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies — ever reward them with a tolerable page.”

Brilliant. Simply a genius. Read that last line again – is that a vision of the internet today?

I propose a simpler way to produce a new Shakespeare-type play. Solve world poverty, introduce universal education, promote a love of beautiful language and an appreciation for drama in every citizen of the world, get robots and machines to do all the drudgery and work for us to free everybody to write, play, enjoy life, and finally one of us – maybe just one – will have a chance at the new Hamlet or the next King Lear. Simple really. 

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6 Comments

  1. David said,

    June 22, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Wonderful post, thanks for writing it! I will be looking for some Borges next week at work (I work in a small college library). Isn’t there another similar story by him about a guy who remembered absolutely everything? I only remember it kind of vaguely!! Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

    I just might be the 2,346,827,638th monkey! Not sure, but I’m typing away like Furious George!! Soon I’ll have a whole book’s worth of jabber.

    I don’t want to burst your bubble of optimism about technology freeing us, but even though I make my living through it, I have a deep distrust of robo-world. Ever since HAL 9000.

    And while I sit here commenting on your post, my phone rings with a call from “UNKNOWN NAME UNKNOWN NUMBER”, who leaves only dial tone for a message, despite my faultlessly polite answering machine’s greeting “Hello. Noone is available to take your call, please leave a message after the tone.”

    You are so right about how simple it is. The internet is unquestionably amazing, and yet ignorance remains dominant, as your post on Ross Hemsworth nicely illustrates. The People want drama and entertainment, bloodsport and sex. Right.

    Enough already.

  2. June 23, 2007 at 12:58 am

    […] Infinite Monkey Just read a nicely written post in a blog called “Sailing to Byzantium”. The author draws an interesting parallel between the blogosphere and that old saw about whether or […]

  3. Nimish Batra said,

    June 23, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Ah, but this wonderful piece ignores a most vital resource, Borges never knew Sergey and Larry, did he?

    There’s a cliche: Google has changed the way we view the web.

    It’s true you know. It’s no longer a library with infinite shelves. It’s a library with one shelf that rotates infintely and a librarian who stands there besides you constantly re-arranging all it’s infinte faces and when you want something, he tries as hard as he can to get it for you.

    A thought: If we had no drudgery, would we appreciate the finer points of life?

    Also: Fermat’s theorem is now proven. :D I wuv random facts.

  4. David said,

    June 23, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    GOD BLESS Sergey and Larry and their Infinitely Rotating Shelf of Universal Data.

    Drudgery and pain needed to “resolve” joy and freedom. It’s another example of Universal Duality. And I consider it a random fact.

  5. June 25, 2007 at 11:22 am

    […] of Babel, the universe, thought, philosophy) I was thinking through my post last week about the Infinite Library and about all the stimulating comments from David Levine and others. I thought: let’s see if […]

  6. David said,

    July 25, 2007 at 11:58 am

    With shazgood’s inspiration I am now re-reading this story after many years. I am taken by the somber tone of the writing, and the pervasive lamentation that the library’s infinite content is nearly useless, and causes pain, suffering, and even death. The way the books are encoded shrouds them in mystery. It’s another prophetic take on our current dilemma.

    But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. Daniel 12:4

    Thanks again shazgood. I’ve got to renew this book- it’s overdue.


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