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Out of Control

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 pyramids.

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 unlimited repetition.

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 infinite).

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 far.

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 shelves."

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 it.

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 luck.

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 undifferentiated nonsense.

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 rambles.

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 found.

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.