Monday, January 14, 2008

Borges, Libraries, and the Internet

If my love of Borges antecedes my love of libraries, it is because I am greatly indebted to Borges for the latter love. Certainly I knew and was fond of libraries before I came to know Borges; but Borges, who made strange stories of books and unreal universes of libraries, transformed libraries into a mysterium tremendum.

In the digital age, as reported in the New York Times article “Borges and the Foreseeable Future,” Borges is presented as a prophet of the internet. One quote used in the article to support this claim is this from the “Library of Babel”:

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist.

But a little bit later in the story, we read that “unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a disproportionate depression.” This is, after all, the library of Babel—the place of confused tongues, where one finds

All—the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of the false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise the Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.

Link to “Borges and the Foreseeable Future”:

Image: Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel” (1563)