Tales from the Library of Babel: Part II

I have not, until now experienced true horror within the Library, the Library of all Libraries. That is unless the general loneliness of my long yet finite journey can be described as mere horror in itself. The books appear to be my only friends and the majority of them contain as is well known, a never ceasing stream of inanity, and what is worse there is no randomness here. A deliberate design in their patterns and structure mock every last one of us.

It is so very quiet in the library, all that I can usually hear is the pad of my footsteps, my own hoarse breathing (I fear some kind of embolism) or occasionally the dripping of unseen water that perhaps gives some clue to a rocky, underground chasm of cosmic proportions. Rarely these days do I hear with mounting joy the approaching footsteps of a colleague, our rapturous greetings barking and bouncing through the galleries and with sudden mute, we whisper in hushed tones like acolytes pouring over what is forbidden, avoiding the gaze of a tyrannical over-seer. It has been several months since I have experienced this pleasure. Delactatio Morosa.

Not so very long ago as I was finishing a grueling shift within a gallery (filled with books containing nothing but the word umwelt cycling endlessly), I heard a noise. It came from a great distance away and yet I could detect it stuttering through the gallery’s opposing doorway. Though it was very faint the sound was not pleasant, in fact it soon resolved into the cries of a man in great distress. I took a moment to gain my bearings, but soon I was running through gallery after gallery in the direction of the cries. As I approached the source I gasped, for the rooms through which I was passing were in disarray; books lay strewn upon the floor. It took great restraint not to stop but I ran on panting heavily and with suddenness burst in upon the strangest scene I have ever witnessed within the walls of this labyrinth. The gallery, like every other has a shaft in the centre, bordered by a railing that stands to about half the height of a man. It has been conjectured that there is no oubliette below – just an unfathomable and infinite drop: Darkness and space. Two librarians had hold of a third, and were in the process of trying to heave him over the barrier and let him fall – forever.

With a cry I launched myself at them, trying desperately to claw at the victim and yet aware that the full force of my vector could aid in pushing him into the abyss. As often happens in these situations the mind causes the illusion of a slowing of time and in those instants a terrible vision came to me: The hapless victim and myself, falling together into infinity, flailing at each other in the darkness as the wind of our acceleration whips the clothes from our bodies. We reach a terminal velocity, clinging together for warmth and slowly expire of hunger, thirst and exposure; one of us to die first and the other to wait for death in that slow descent.

Within the space of a second I had hold of the young librarian and pulled him to safety. As I hauled him away from the abyss, he clung to me for his life, and the two mad men stood panting by the orifice, looks of confusion upon their faces. Both of them were unknown to me.

“Explain yourselves!” I demanded. They looked at each other and then the eldest – a weaselly faced man with a short grey, curling beard spoke defiantly.

“This man does not deserve the title of librarian!” he said, outraged.

“Why ever not?” I replied. “There is never judgement placed upon fellow brothers, it is the law, we find ourselves here in this space and we make of our existence the very best we can.” The younger, sallow faced man spoke up, defending his colleague.

“But he is not making the best of his life! For he cannot defer to the wisdom of his elders.” he said.

“This much is true,” said the other. I stared at them both.

“And what are these so-called wise words?” I asked. The men were silent for a moment. The elder spoke again.

“We tried to persuade him about the infinite nature of the library, but he dissented, would you believe!”

“How did he express this dissent?” I asked them.

“He refuses to believe in the infinite – look! Over there!” the sallow faced man said shrilly. “If you look through the door way you can see the passage way goes on and on!

We looked, and indeed it did appear that the passage receded into the distance with the hints of galleries either side. I looked again, smiling and deferred to the young librarian at my side.

“Please explain to our brothers what they can see, if they look again!” The young librarian spoke hesitantly.

“Should you look at the passage way you can see that it bends, ever so slightly – it is curving upwards!” The other men looked and they were obviously surprised.

“Not only that,” I said. “If you look very carefully you can see that it also bends to the left, though this is hard to perceive – in fact I had to use a device supplied by our brothers in optics to note this slight change!” The two men were dumfounded. “You are wondering about the very structure of the library are you not?” They nodded. “The upward curve of the floor would seem to denote that we reside on the interior of some great wheel and that if you follow the passage way far enough you will arrive back at the place at which you started? Does this make sense?” The two men nodded. “But, if the corridor is also curving to the left then it cannot possibly meet itself after a full revolution? So the answer is..” I nodded to the young man.

“The passage way” he continued, “must be part of a great coil!” he stopped in surprise at himself as though this was his first revelation concerning the matter.

“Yes!” I said excitedly. “This is so, a great coil, and yet what if the filament of this great coil is bending in on itself yet again – it may be part of an even greater coil!”

“And so on and on infinitely!” cried the bearded librarian triumphantly. The two of them looked at each other with such joy that I thought they were about to embrace. I coughed politely but with enough force to silence them. “We can reach the conclusion that these infinite coils therefore render the library itself infinite?” They nodded appreciatively but the elder man’s face betrayed his realization that the nature of my question was rhetorical. I continued: “You are forgetting an important fact considering all of these books, books that have the same structure, page length, number of words and so on.  As long as every book is different from every other – there can only ever be a finite number of books in this place, vast as this number is.” Everybody was silent for a moment. The sallow faced librarian spoke in defeat.

“I am in agreement with this fact, but what about the infinite nature of the space – the coiled up passages here conceivably can go on forever?”

“Our young friend here I think can answer this riddle” I deferred once again to our colleague. He answered thoughtfully letting the ideas spill out at the moment he was thinking of them. “We therefore find ourselves in an ordered part of this infinite space – where there is a great volume of books in our local neighbourhood that, although appear random, are somehow variations of each other! If we move far away enough from this spot, then the books must either begin to thin out, or stop entirely, leaving empty shelves and galleries… into infinity.” We were again silent, contemplating what seemed to be a depressing fact about the world. I spoke up, resolutely and with happiness.
“Brothers! Do not despair, for we arrived in a region of great interest that will provide us with enough in the way of intellectual stimulation for the rest of our natural lives – we will not live to see this slow depletion of our reading matter, so take heart!”

And with that we went about our separate ways.


– Your Joyful Benefactor

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