In 1967, Borges told the French critic Georges Charbonnier that he had kept two ideas in mind when writing "The Library of Babel." The first was a commonplace, an exposition of the combinatory art that has enthralled mathematicians from Archimedes onward, and a conceit amusingly described by Lewis Carroll in "Sylvie and Bruno": that since the number of words in any given language is finite, their possible combinations — i.e., books — are finite also, and that therefore, in the near future, writers will no longer ask, "What book shall I write?" but, "Which book shall I write?"
Borges confessed that, beyond this abstract idea, he was also describing the troubling feeling of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. "In my story," he told Charbonnier, "there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself."
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
At the New York Sun, Alberto Manguel has a nice piece about a new book on the mathematics of Borges's Library of Babel: