the Library of babel

By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters.
The Anatomy of Melancholy part 2, sect II, mem IV.

The universe - that others call the Library - is made up of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number, of hexagonal galleries, with vast ventilation wells in the centre, surrounded by very low railings. From each hexagon, one sees the floors above and below: interminably. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. twenty shelves, five large shelves to a side, cover all but two sides; their height, which is that of the ceiling, hardly exceeds that of a normal library. One of the free faces gives a narrow vestibule which ends in another gallery, identical to the first and to the lot. to the left and the right of the vestibule there are two miniscule cabinets. In one, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy the fecal necessities. Over there goes the spiral staircase, which elevates and abysses remotely. In the vestibule is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. People used to infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite, (if it actually was, then what of this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that the [brunidas] surfaces figure and promise infinity... the light proceeds from some [esfericas] fruits that have the name of lamps. there are two in each hexagon; transversal. The light they shed is insufficient, incessant.

Like all people in the Library, I had journeyed in my youth; gone on pilgrimage in search of one book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I prepare to die a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Dead, there will be no shortage of pious hands to throw me from the railing; my sepulchre will be the unsoundable air; my body will [hundira] long and will corrupt and dissolve in the sense engendered by the fall, which is infinite. I affirm that the Library is interminable. The idealists argue that the hexagonal salons are a necessary form in absolute space, or, at least, of our intuition of space. They rationalise that a triangular or pentagonal salon is inconceivable. (The mystics pretend that ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber of continuous back, which goes all around the walls; but their testimony is suspicious; their words, obscure. that cyclical book is God.) It suffices, for now, to repeat the classical dictate: "the Library is a sphere whose exact center is whichever hexagon whose circumference is inaccessible."

Five shelves correspond to each of the walls of each hexagon; each shelf encloses thirty-two books of uniform format; each book is four hundred and ten pages' each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty black letters. There are also letters on the back of each book; these letters do not index or prefigure what the pages will say. I know that this disconnection once seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the solution, (whose discovery, despite its tragic implications, is perhaps the capital deed in the story.) I want to recall some axioms.

The first: the Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, no reasonable mind can doubt. The human, the imperfect librarian, can be a work of chance or of the malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant dowry of shelves, of enigmatic tomes, of infatigable stairways for the traveller and of latrines for the sedentary librarian, can only be the work of a god. In order to percieve the distance between the human and the divine, it is enough to compare those rude tremulous symbols that my fallible hand [garabatea] on the covers of a book, with the organic letters of the interior: punctual, delicate, very black, inimitably symmetrical.

Phe second: "the number of orthographic symbols is twenty-five"[1]. This constraint allowed, for thirty years, the formulation of a general theory of the Library and the satisfactory resolution of the problem that no conjecture had deciphered: the informal and chaotic nature of almost all of the books. One, that my father saw in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four consisted in the letters MCV, perversely repeated from this first line until the last. Another (much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the penultimate page says "oh time your pyramids". One already knows: for one line of reason or straight news, are leagues of insensible cacophonies, verbal farragos and incoherences. (I know a uneven region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of searching for meaning in the books, and have equipped themselves to search for it in dreams or in the chaotic lines of the hand. They admit that the inventors of writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but maintain that that is a casual application and the books mean nothing in relation to it. This dictate, we will see, is not completely false.)

For a long time it was believed that the impenetrable books corresponded to remote or preterite languages. It is true that the people of antiquity, the first librarians, used an [asaz] language different from that we speak now; it is true that some miles to the right, the language is a dialect, and ninety floors above, it is incomprehensible. All this, I repeat, is true, but four hundred and ten pages of unalterable MCV could not correspond to any language, however dialectical or rudimentary it may be. Some people intimate that each letter could influence the subsequent and that the value of MCV in the third line of page 71 was not that which the same series could have in another position on another page, but this vague thesis did not prosper. Others thought about cryptographies, universally that conjecture has been accepted, although not in the same sense as its authors formulated it.

Fifteen years ago, the chief of a superior hexagon [2] revealed a book as confused as the others, but that had nearly two sheets of homogenous lines. He showed his find to an wandering decipherer, who said it was written up in portuguese; others he claimed were in yiddish. He could identify the language to within a century; a samoyed-lithuanian dialect of the [guarani], with classical arabic inflections. He also deciphered the content: notions of combinatorial analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition. Those examples allowed one librarian of genius to discovere the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, however diverse, consist of the same elements: the space, the full stop, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also posits a theory that all travellers have confirmed: "there are not, in the vast Library, two identical books." From these incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographic symbols (a number, although very vast, not infinite) or rather everything that is possible to express: in all languages. All: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstrations of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on this gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the version of each book in every language, the interpolations of each book in every book.

When it was proclaimed that the Library included all books, the first impression was of extravagant felicity. Everyone felt themselves masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or global problem whose eloquent solution did not exist, in some hexagon. The univese was justified, Universe suddenly usurped by the illimitable dimensions of Hope. In those times much was spoken of the Vindications; books of apology and prophecy, that would forever vindicate the actions of everyone in the universe and held prodigious arcana for its future. Thousands of [codiciosos] types abandoned the sweet hexagon of their birth and sent themselves up stairways, urged on by the vain proposition of finding their Vindication. Those pilgrims argued in the straight corridors, professed obscure curses, they strangled each other in the divine stairways, threw the deceiving books to the end of the tunnels, died [despenados] by people in remote places. Others went mad... the Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to people in the future, at least not to imaginary people) but the searchers forget that the chance that someone will encounter their own, or any perfidious variation on their own, is next to zero.

One waits still and always for the clarification of the basic mysteries of humanity: the origins of the Library and of time. It seems likely that those grave mysteries can explain themselves in words: if the language of the philosophers is not enough, the multiform Library will have produced the unheard language required and the vocabularies and grammars of that language. People have exhausted the library for four centuries now... there are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the execution of their function: they always come protected; they talk of a stairway without steps that nearly killed them; they speak of galleries and stairways with the librarian; sometimes, they take the closest book and they leaf through it, in search of infamous words. Visibly, no-one hopes to discover anything.

The riotous hope was succeeded by, as is natural, an excessive depression. The certainty that one shelf in one hexagon enclosed precious books and that those precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable. One blasphemous sect suggested that they cease their searches and that everyone shuffle letters and symbols, until constructing, by means of an improbable gift of chance, those canonical books. The authorities were seen to be obliged to promulgate severe orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I saw old men who had largely hidden in the latrines, with some metal disks in a prohibited tumbler, and debilitatedly imitate the divine disorder.

Others, inversely, believed that the principle was to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, exhibiting not always false credentials, leafed through a volume fastidiously and condemned entire shelves: to their hygienic fury, ascetic, we owe the insensible loss of millions of books. Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the "treasures" that their frenzy destroyed, neglect two notorious ideas. One: the Library is so enormous that any human reduction of it is infinitesimal. The other: each unique example admittedly irreplaceable, but (as the Library is total) there are always hundreds of thousands of imperfect facsimiles: works that do not differ by more than one letter or one comma. Counter to general opinion, I dare to imagine that the consequences of of the depredations committed by the Purifiers, have been exaggerated by the horror that those fanatics provoked. The delirium of conquering the books of the Carmesi hexagon; books in a smaller format that the natural ones; omnipotent, illustrated, and magic.

We also know of another superstition of that time; that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf in some hexagon (people reason) there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has access to it and is analogous to a god. In the language of this region there persist some vestiges of the cult of that remote functionary. Many went on pilgrimage in search of Him. For a century they exhausted the most diverse courses. How to locate the venerable secret hexagon that hosted him? Someone proposed a recursive method: to find book A, consult beforehand a book B that indicates the site of A; to find B, previously consult C, and like that into infinity... on adventures like that I have lavished and consumed my years. It doesnt seem unlike to me that on some shelf in the universe is a sound and complete book[3]: I plead with the indifferent gods that one person - only one, though it be thousands of years ago - may have examined it and read it. If honour and wisdom and happiness are not for me, may they be for others. That heaven may exist, although my place will be in hell. That I might be [ultrajado] and annihilated, but that in an instant, in a being, Your enormous Library justifies itself.

The impious affirm that nonsense is normal in the Library, and that reason (and even the humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know it) of "the febrile Library, whose risky volumes run the incessant [albur] of changing into others and that everything affirms it, negates it and confounds it with a divinity that [delira]". Those words, which denounce not only order but also exemplify it, notoriously demonstrate their [pesimo] taste and their desperate ignorance. In effect, the Library includes all the verbal structures, all the variations that the the twenty-five orthographic symbols allow, are doubtless capable of a cryptographic justification or allegory; this justification is verbal and, ex hypothesis, already figured in the Library. I cannot combine any characters such as


that the divine library will not have foreseen and which in one of the secret languages does not contain a terrible sense. No-one can articulate a symbol that is not full of tendernesses and fears; that is not in one of those languages the powerful name of god. To speak is to incur tautologies. This pointless, prosaic epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves in one of the uncountable hexagons, and also its refutation. (A number n of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some, the symbol library has the correct definition "ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries", but library is "bread" or "pyramid" or some other thing, and the seven words that define it have another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?

Methodical writing distracts me from the present condition of people. The certitude that everything is written annuls us and [afantasma] us. I know of districts where youths prostrate themselves before books and kiss the pages with barbarism, but cannot decipher a single letter. Epidemics, heretical discord, pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandry, have decimated the population. I believe I have mentioned the suicides, more frequent each year.perhaps age and fear are deceiving me, but I suspect that the human species - the only - is set on self-extinction and the Library will be lost: illuminated, solitary, perfectly immobile, armed with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.

I have just written infinite. I have not interpolated that adjective out of rhetorical habit: I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it limited, postulate that in remote places the corridors and staircases and hexagons must inconceivably end - which is absurd - those who imagine it without limits, forget that it has the possibe number of books. I dare to insinuate this solution to the old problem: the Library is unlimited and periodical. If an eternal traveller traversed it in whichever direction, they would also verify at the end of centuries that the same volumes repeated themselves in the same disorder (which, repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is cheered by this elegant hope.[4]

1. The original manuscript does not contain figures or capitals. The punctuation has been limited to the comma and the full stop. Those two signs, the space and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, are the twenty five symbols sufficient to enumerate the unknown.

2. Previously, there was a person for every three hexagons. Suicides and pulmonary illness had distorted this ratio. Memory of unspeakable melancholy: at times I have journeyed though many polished corridors and staircases without finding a single librarian.

3. I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example, no book is also a staircase, although doubtless there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a staircase.

4. Leticia Alvarez of Toledo has observed that the vast Library is useless; with rigour, it would be enough to have one single volume, of a common format, form in body nine or body ten, which consists of an infinite number of infinitely thin pages. (Cavalieri, on the principles of the seventeenth century, said that all a solid body is the superposition of an infinite number of planes.) the handling of that silky vademecum will not be comfortable; each apparent sheet would undouble itself in other analogies; the inconceivable central page will have no reverse.