The eLibrary of Babel (after Jorge Borges)

The universe (which others call the eLibrary) is composed of a single hexagonal gallery. In the centre of the gallery is a ventilation shaft that extends for an unseen but finite distance and is bounded by a low railing. If one were to lean over the edge, a cool up-draft of air can be felt. Five bookshelves line four of the walls: Twenty shelves in all. The two remaining, opposing sides are doors, fronted by large mirrors that extend to their full height and width. So, standing near the centre of the room there appears to be, extending away on each side, a set of galleries curving away ad infinitum. Outside one of the glass doors is a small vestibule with enough room for a librarian to sit (on a convenience provided to remove waste) and the opposing one for sleeping (standing up) or other private recreational activity. A secret door exists somewhere in the gallery to admit librarians and technicians. Only individuals with sufficient clearance have the knowledge that enables them to enter and leave (rumour has it that this is a quantum cryptographic system, a random password is entered by the user and the system ‘knows’ via your subconscious if you have the key or not). Light is provided by mirrored shafts that direct sunlight into the space. It is meagre at the best of times, dim if the weather is inclement and of course at night, as black as pitch.

Each bookshelf found within the hexagon holds thirty-two ebooks, each identical in format; each ebook has an eink screen that can display books formatted to four hundred and ten pages; each page, forty lines, each line approximately eighty black letters (that can be displayed in various fonts). There are twenty-eight orthographic symbols. Twenty six of these are the alphabet (without any capital letters), the comma, the full-stop (or as some of our librarian’s cousins refer to it, the period) and the single space. Numbers are depicted as words.

A forward button on each physical ebook will generate a new book within it. The old one is not destroyed but can only be reached by pressing the back button. This means that if one thousand new books are generated then to return to the first one – nine hundred and ninety nine back presses will be needed. A single button will illuminate the text of the ebook allowing perusal of the library’s content at night.

This ability to generate all of the books that have ever been written or can be written in a single space cannot be doubted: Man the imperfect librarian may be the work of chance or of a malevolent demiurge; the library with its enigmatic books – can only be the handiwork of generations of engineers. A corollary – from our first word, we are all librarians.

I have stumbled through the elibrary’s pages trying to solve the riddle of the formless and chaotic nature of virtually all of the books. Once I generated a book that consisted of the letters QVC perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase The bicycle shineth upon my knees.

This much is known: For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense and incoherency. However we can deduce that the elibrary is “total” -perfect, complete, and whole – and that its ebookshelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-eight orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite).

It contains All-the detailed histories of the future, the autobiographies of all who have ever lived, the faithful catalog of the eLibrary, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, the story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, and don’t forget the ‘alternative’ texts. These may contain the ‘complete’ versions of the works of Agatha Christie in which at each climactic reveal, where the killer is unmasked, he turns out to be the person sitting to the left of the ‘true’ killer and of course think of all of the versions in which the killer turns out to be YOU. Consider Hamlet murdering his own father and arguing with the ghost. Poor Estella unable to abuse Pip because she was never adopted by Miss Havisham, who got to have her triumphant marriage day. Two captains: The nut-case Ahab chasing his giant squid who will one day pull him down into the swirling vortex with one of its tentacles while the depressive Nemo chases a whale. In Middle Earth the homoerotic adventures of Frodo and Samwise…

I have just written the word “infinite”. I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that any one of the ebooks could suddenly end, which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The eLibrary is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveller were to summon new books, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

– Your Joyful Benefactor

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