My path to the fiction section on the third floor of the university
library meandered through hundreds of thousands of books sleeping on
shelves. Have these books ever been read? Way in the back of the
library, where the dark fluorescent lights must be turned on by the
browser, I searched the international literature section for the work of
the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges.
I found three shelves packed with books Borges wrote or that were
written about him. Borges's stories are famously surreal. They are so
absolutely fake that they appear real; they are literate hyperreality.
Some of the books were in Spanish, some were biographies, some were full
of poems, some were anthologies of his minor essays, some were duplicate
copies of other books on the shelf, some were commentaries upon the
commentaries on his essays.
I ran my hand over the volumes, thick, thin, slim, oversize, old, and
newly bound. On a whim I slid out a worn chestnut-covered book. I opened
it. It was an anthology of interviews Borges did in his eighties. The
interviews were conducted in English, which Borges wielded more
gracefully than most native speakers. I was stunned to find that the
last 24 pages contained an interview with Borges, based on his writings
in Labyrinths, which properly could only exist in my book, this book,
Out of Control.
The interview began with my question: "I read in one of your essays
about a labyrinthine maze of books. This library contained all possible
books. It was clear that this library was born as a literary metaphor,
but such a library now appears in scientific thought. Can you describe
the origin of this hall of books to me?"
BORGES: 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. There are five
shelves for each of the hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five
books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages;
each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are
black in color.
ME: What do the books say?
BORGES: For every sensible line of straightforward statement in the
books there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and
incoherence. Nonsense is normal in the Library. The reasonable (and even
humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception.
ME: You mean all the books are full of random letters?
BORGES: Nearly. One book which my father saw in a hexagon on circuit
1594 was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first
line to the last. Another (very much consulted, by the way) is a mere
labyrinth of letters, but the next-to-the last page says Oh time thy
ME: But there must be some books in the Library which make sense!
BORGES: A few. Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon
came upon a book as confusing as the others, but which had nearly two
pages of homogeneous lines. The content was deciphered: some notions of
combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variation with
ME: That's it? Two pages of rational sense discovered in five hundred
years of searching? What did the two pages say?
BORGES: The text of the two pages made it possible for a librarian to
discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that
all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the
same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters
of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed:
In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two
incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that
its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd
orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not
ME: So, in other words, any book you could possibly write, in any
language, could be found (theoretically) in the library. It contains all
past and future books!
BORGES: Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the
archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the Library,
thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the
fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of the Basilides, the
commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that
gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in
all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
ME: One would have to guess, then, that the Library holds immaculate
books -- books of the most unimaginably beautiful writing and penetrating
insight -- books better than the best literature that anyone has written so
BORGES: It suffices that a book be possible for it to exist in the
Library. On some shelf in some hexagon there must exist a book which is
the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest. I pray to the
unknown gods that a man -- just one, even though it were thousands of years
ago! -- may have examined and read it.
Borges then went on at great length about a blasphemous sect of
librarians who believed it was crucial to eliminate useless books: "They
invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false,
leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole
He caught the curiosity in my eyes and said, "Those who deplored the
'treasures' destroyed by this frenzy neglect two notable facts. One: the
Library is so enormous that any reduction of human origin is
infinitesimal. The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but
(since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand
imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or comma."
ME: But how would one discern the difference between the real and the
almost? Such proximity means that this book I hold in my hands not only
exists in the Library, but so does a similar one, differing only by an
alternative word in a previous sentence. Perhaps the related book reads:
"every copy is not unique, irreplaceable." How would you know if you
ever found the book you were looking for?
There was no reply. When I looked up I noticed I was surrounded by dusty
shelves in an eerily lit hexagonal room. By some fantastical logic, I
was standing in Borges's Library. Here were the twenty shelves, and the
receding layers upon layers of upper and lower floors visible between
the low railing, and the labyrinth of corridors lined with books.
Borges's Library was as marvelous as it was a temptation. For two years
I had been working on the book you now hold. At that time I was one year
past my deadline. I couldn't afford to finish it, and I couldn't afford
to not finish it. A grand resolution to my dilemma lay somewhere in this
Library of all possible books. I would search Borges's Library until I
found on some shelf the best of all possible books I could write, one
entitled Out of Control. This would be a book already written, edited,
and proofed. It would spare me another year of tortuous work, work I was
not sure I was even up to. It certainly seemed worth a try looking for
So I set off down the endless corridors of book-filled hexagons.
After passing through the fifth hexagon, I paused and on a whim I
reached out and dislodged a stiff green book from a cramped upper shelf.
Inside it was utter chaos.
So was the one next to it, and the next after that. I fled this hexagon
and walked quickly through identical corridors of hexagons for about a
half mile, until I stopped again and plucked a book from a nearby shelf
without deliberation. The book was rotten with the same gibberish. I
checked the entire row and found the same rot. I inspected several other
spots in the hexagon and could not distinguish any improvement among
them. For several more hours I wandered changing directions, checking
hundreds of books, some on lower shelves near my feet and some perched
almost at the ceiling, but all contained the same undistinguished
garbage. There appeared to be billions of books of nonsense. A book
entirely full of the letters MCV, as Borges's father found, would have
been quite exhilarating.
Yet the temptation lingered. I figure I could spend days, or even weeks,
searching for the completed Out of Control book by Kevin Kelly, at a
profitable gamble. I might even find a better Out of Control book by
Kevin Kelly than I could write myself, for which I would be thankful to
spend a year hunting.
I stopped to rest upon the small landing on one of the spiral staircases
that wound between floors. I reflected on the design of the Library.
From where I sat I could see nine stores up the air shaft and nine
below, and about a mile in the six directions of the honeycombed floors.
If this Library contained all possible books, my reasoning went, then
any volumes that fit the rules of grammar (let alone were interesting)
would be so tiny a fraction of the total books, that my coming upon one
by random search would be miraculous. Five hundred years sounded about
right as the time needed to find two sensible pages -- any two sensible
pages. To find a readable book would take several millenniums, with
I decided to take a different tack.
There were a constant number of books per shelf. There were a constant
number of shelves per hexagon. All the hexagons were uniform, lit by a
grapefruit-size bulb of light, interspersed by hallways with two closet
doors and a mirror in each. The Library was ordered.
If the Library was ordered that meant (most likely) the books it
contained were also ordered. If the volumes were arranged so that books
that differed only slightly were placed near each other, and books that
differed greatly were separated widely, then this organization would
yield a way for me to fairly quickly find a readable book somewhere in
this Library of all possible books. If this vastness of the Library was
so ordered, there was even a chance I could put my hands on a completed
Out of Control, a book embossed with my name on the title page, but
which I did not have to write.
I commenced my shortcut to achievement by selecting a book from the
nearest stack. I spent ten minutes studying its nonsense. I strode a
hundred yards away to the seventh nearest hexagon and picked another
book. I did the same in turn for each of the six radiating directions. I
scanned the six new texts and then I selected the one that held the most
"sense" compared to first. In one I found a sensible three word
sequence: "or bog and." Then I repeated the search routine using this
"bog" volume as the base, comparing texts in the six directions around
it. After several iterations I uncovered a book whose noisy pages
contained two phraselike sequences. I was getting warmer. After many
iterations of this ritual I found a book with four English phrases
hidden among the detritus of garbled letters.
I quickly learned to search very wide -- about 200 hexagons in each
direction -- spreading out from the last "best" book in order to explore
the library faster. I kept progressing in this fashion until I found
books with many English phrases, although the clauses were scattered
among the pages.
My hours turned to days. The topological pattern of "good" books formed
a image in my mind. Every complete grammatical book in the Library sat
in a disguised epicenter. At the center was the book; immediately
surrounding it were shelves of close facsimiles of the book; each
facsimile contained a mere alteration in punctuation -- an inserted comma,
a deleted period. Ringing these books were shelves of lesser
counterfeits that altered a word or two. Surrounding this second ring
was a further broad ring of books that differed by whole sentences, most
of them degraded illogical statements.
I imagined the rings of grammar as a map of contour lines circling round
a mountain. The map represented a geography of coherence. A single
celestial, readable book resided on a summit's peak; below it lay ever
greater masses of baser books. The lower the books, the more base they
were, and the greater was the circumference of their bulk. The entire
mountain of "almost" books stood in an enormous plain of
To find a book then was a matter of scaling the summit of order. As long
as I made sure that I was always climbing uphill -- always marching toward
books that contained more sense -- I would inevitably arrive at the apex of
a readable book. As long as I moved through the Library across the
contour of increasingly better grammar, then I would inevitably arrive
at the hexagon harboring a wholly grammatical book -- the peak.
After several days of using what I began to call the Method, I found a
book. Such a book could not have been found by aimless rambling of the
kind that produced the two pages Borges's father found. Only the Method
could have guided me to this center of coherence. I justified my
investment of time by reminding myself that I found more with the Method
than generations of librarians had uncovered by their unorganized
As forecasted by the Method, the book I found (entitled Hadal) was
surrounded by broad concentric rings of similar pseudobooks. But the
text itself, although grammatically correct, was disappointingly bland,
flat, characterless. The most interesting parts read like very bad
poetry. There was one line alone that shone with remarkable intelligence
and has stuck with me: "The present is hidden from us."
However, I never did find a copy Out of Control. Nor did I find a book
that could steal an evening from me. I see now that would have taken
years, even with the Method. Instead, I exited from Borges's Library
into the university library and then returned home to conclude Out of
Control by writing it myself.
The Method tickled my curiosity and distracted me from my writing. Was
it widely known among travelers and librarians? I was prepared for the
probability that others must have uncovered it in the past. Returning to
the university library (finite and catalogued), I searched for a book
with an answer. I bounced from index to footnote, from footnote to book,
landing far from where I began. What I found amazed me. The truth seemed
farfetched: Scientists believe the Method has saturated our world since
time immemorial. It was not invented by man; by God perhaps. The Method
is a variety of what we now call evolution.
If we can accept this analysis, then the Method is how we have all been
More amazing yet: I had taken Borges's Library to be the private dream
(a virtual reality) of an imaginative author, yet I read with growing
fascination that his Library was real. I believe the sly Borges had
known this all along; he had cast his account as fiction, for who would
have believed him? (Others say his fiction was a way to jealously guard
his access to this most awesome space.)
Two decades ago nonlibrarians discovered Borges's Library in silicon
circuits of human manufacture. The poetic can imagine the countless rows
of hexagons and hallways stacked up in the Library corresponding to the
incomprehensible microlabyrinth of crystalline wires and gates stamped
into a silicon computer chip. A computer chip, blessed by the proper
incantation of software, creates Borges's Library on command. The
initiated chip employs its companion screen to display the text of any
book in Borges's Library; first a text from block 1594, the next from
the little visited section 2CY. Pages from the books appear on the
screen one after another without delay. To search Borges's Library of
all possible books, past, present, and future, one needs only to sit
down (the modern solution) and click the mouse.
Neither the model, the speed, the soundness of design, or the
geographical residence of the computer makes any difference while
generating a portal to Borges's Library. This Borges himself did not
know, although he would have appreciated it: that whatever artificial
means are used to get there, all travelers arrive at exactly the same
Library. (Which is to say all libraries of possible books are identical;
there are no counterfeit Libraries of Borges; all copies of the Library
are original.) The consequence of this universality is that any computer
can create a Borgian Library of all possible books.