October 28, 2016
Ex-Netscape designer and Krav Maga enthusiast designs an obsessively faithful 3D model of Borges’s Library of Babel, internet is vindicated
by Simon Reichley
In case you weren’t aware, we are living in a golden age. The internet has finally and completely unbound the human imagination, and we are without doubt living in the best of all possible worlds (or a computer simulation of same, designed by an incomprehensible alien intelligence).
For proof, look no further than this pair of blog posts (and the accompanying comments sections) by Jamie Zawinski. The posts describe Zawinski’s approach to and execution of a 3D rendering of Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, as described in the short story of the same name that appeared in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it describes a library of near-infinite size, housing an astronomical number of 410-page volumes collecting every possible permutation of every character in every language. Such a library would house all past, present, and future knowledge, every variation, misstatement, and translation of that knowledge, and a terrifying mass of nonsense. In the original text, the narrator provides a physical description of this maddening house of letters:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite… Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.
Zawinski, who owns and operates the all-ages venue and part-time Krav Maga dojo DNA Lounge in San Francisco, started tinkering with the idea after a search for visual representations of the library left him wanting. Érik Desmazières’s illustrations? Beautiful, but brazen in their disregard for Borges’s description. Alex Warren’s thoughtful, architectural renderings? Cleverly symmetrical, but again, the presentation either misreads or holds in contempt the construction of space in the text. Intolerable!
For a self-made man like Zawinski (in a previous life, he was one of the first engineers at Netscape, and a founder of Mozilla), the only thing to do was to create his own personal, virtual library.
The preliminary design was discussed at great and considerate length in the comments section (which is worth reading in full), inspiring Zawinski to refine his approach. The second round of renderings in turn inspired more discussion, and, as far as we can tell, folks are still spitballing away, wrestling with the ineffable. You can find semi-anonymous nerds talking about the use of the definite article in reference to the spiral staircase in the original Spanish, and what the architectural implications of that might be. You can find musings on the performance of a slinky on an infinite spiral staircase, and whether or not a slight angling of the steps would be sufficient to guarantee perpetual slinking. There is a discussion of crucial differences between the 1941 and the 1956 editions of the story. There is some information about topography.
Someone recommends a book about the mathematical implications and theory of the Library of Babel. That same person also recommends another book, available only in Italian, which “apparently solves the puzzle,” but which has never been translated. There is a link to an online, fully searchable Libary of Babel (it’s a work in progress). There is a link to a virtual reality version of that searchable library, populated by half-mad zombie librarians.
It turns out that it is impossible to think too much about the architectural details of an subinfinite library of galactic proportions. Which is not surprising.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.