The Library of Babel

I was thinking about the Borges story The Library of Babel (which you can read here, and browse random books from here) l and I got to wondering whether anyone had done any decent renderings of it.

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. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

I was disappointed to find that my go-to resource for such things, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, had no illustration to go along with its entry.

One edition of the book had as its cover one of the illustrations of the library by Érik Desmazières, which are gorgeous, but have a wanton disregard for nearly every particular in the text, so we can pretty much just ignore this one:

So there's Alex Warren's take, which is nicely symmetrical:

However, I think there are several major misreadings here.

  1. The text pretty clearly states that there is only one door from each hexagon to the hallway. To connect the hexagons as shown here requires two or more doors per room.

  2. There is one bookcase on each of 4 walls. Not multiple bookcases, and not on 5 walls.

  3. Each shelf of each bookcase contains 35 books of 410 pages. Even assuming rather thick paper, each of those books would be less than 2" thick, yielding a bookcase less than 6' wide. So the rooms are probably a lot smaller than shown.

  4. The sleep chamber, lavatory and hallway aren't shown.

This image by Andrew DeGraff has an interesting positioning of the stairs, but makes the same mistakes about the number of doors, and omits the hallways.

Thomas Basbøll thinks that since there can only be one door, the library must consist of pairs of hexagonal rooms, which implies that the library must be a tower, immensely tall but not very wide:

But if Borges had meant a tower, I think he would have said a tower, and probably would have used the word "floor" more often instead of words like "region" and "circuit", and wouldn't have said, "If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction..."

I think WillH's comment here has the right idea: if the un-described sixth wall is not a wall at all, and sets of six rooms are arranged into pods, it all works out. "Air shafts between" could be interpreted as "between rooms" rather than "between shelves".

That does leave weirdly-shaped unreachable voids between the pods. But at one point he speaks of "in a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four", and the word "circuit" fits well with this circular arrangement.

Kate and Andrew Bernheimer came up with this one, which has the "circuit of hexagons" idea, but links them all into a circle around a void, and again seems to omit the hallways.

Various other illustrations of it that I've seen seemed to assume that the sleep chamber and lavatory open off of the hallway, but "To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets" sounds to me like those closets are on the same wall as the entrance to the hallway, that is, they open into the hexagonal room. So that gives us a minimum length of each wall of about 10' (assuming pre-ADA, sub-OSHA standards of construction). That means the bookcases can't possibly fill the whole wall unless there is a lot of empty space on them, or the books themselves are each like 40" thick.

Where does the spiral staircase go? Again, a lot of illustrators stuck it off of the hallway, but it doesn't read that way to me. It sounds to me like there is a spiral stairway within each of the hexagonal book rooms. It might wrap around the air shaft, but I think that's a tortured interpretation.

Well, I fired up Sketchup and took a crack at my own version of it. Fun fact: Sketchup does very poorly with a vast number of objects, even if those objects are wrapped up in "components", most of which are invisible. The file is 400KB but the thing is using almost 2GB of RAM and hypnowheeling constantly for 90+ seconds at a time. Hooray.

I haven't added the stairwells, and I kind of think the "corridors" need to be longer to earn that word. Also those enormous and oddly-shaped voids between "circuits" of rooms bother me. So I don't think this is quite right either.

Wikipedia says that there are 251,312,000 or 1.956 × 101,834,097 possible books. That's a lot of books.

with 700 books per room, and the rooms laid out with approximately the same number of rooms on all three axes, I think that means it is roughly 10611,364 rooms wide and floors tall before you reach the end?

I can't help but think about the weight and pressure of a column of air that high, and what is it sitting on, and how to route the plumbing from all of those toilets, and that toilets imply digestion, so where does the food come from? Is there a section of the library devoted to farming, and metallurgy? But now I'm overthinking a sub-infinite but nearly boundless hill of beans.

Update: Hey folks, the comments on this post have been fantastic. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that that is, uh, often not the case. So thank you all for playing along. Anyway, I've done some more Sketchup layouts which you can see in the followup post:

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DNA Lounge: Wherein we've had some great shows lately!

Ok, first I think you need to watch this excellent documentary about every sound guy ever (except for ours, of course), from The Hard Times, whom you might remember as the folks who brought you "Henry Rollins Driving App Tells You How Hard It Would Have Been to Get There in the '80s":

Next, here's an unexpected headline:

San Francisco To Get First New Liquor Licenses Issued By State In 77 Years:

But it means a lot less once you read the details:

Thanks to a bill sponsored by state senator Mark Leno, San Francisco is about to get its first new liquor licenses in almost 80 years -- but only five of them. They're earmarked for new or existing restaurants on one of seven commercial corridors where there tend not to be any restaurants with general on-sale or "full" liquor licenses, with the idea being that businesses in these areas can't afford to buy licenses on the secondary market, as they're usually sold, these days averaging around $300,000 in SF.

The eligible neighborhoods are Third Street in the Bayview, outer Mission Street in the Excelsior, San Bruno Avenue, Ocean Avenue, Noriega Street, Taraval Street and Visitacion Valley. The licenses will be available directly from ABC for an application fee of $13,800 and will be non-transferable. [...]

The weirdness and seeming scarcity around liquor licenses here dates back to a state law passed in 1939 that declared that cities could only have one general on-sale license for every 2,000 residents. That would have limited SF to only 418 licenses at our current population, but at the time the law was passed there were already around 1,000 licenses issued here, which were all grandfathered in and transferrable. Those same licenses are the ones that continue to be bought and sold on the secondary market, and their value has risen greatly driven by our local restaurant economy in neighborhoods like the Mission, Hayes Valley and the Financial District. But $300,000 is a steep price for a mom-and-pop business in one of these more "outer" neighborhoods, a problem that the new licenses hope to solve.

Only five though? Van Houten says they asked for 28, but for now, we have to settle for five.

So yeah. Five, and they're in the Inner Farallons and Almost-Colma.

We had several truly excellent shows in the last few weeks, and hey, here are some photos of them:

Revolting Cocks
Carpenter Brut
Shonen Knife

Tsunami Bomb
Turbo Drive
Revolting Cocks were fantastic. It's always great to have Chris Connelly back here, as I really miss Pigface (the world's last industrial band). Carpenter Brut were also really fun: much more of a live band than I expected, given their primarily electronic sound. Though they get categorized as a "retrowave" band, apparently they are somewhat popular in the metal scene, which makes more sense to me having seen them, because they reminded me of Goblin (the band who scored Dario Argento's movies in the 70s). Shonen Knife also rocked. Their drummer seems physically incapable of not having a giddy smile, and they are just so damned perky it's contagious. And the Turbo Drive party with Beautiful Machines, Night Club and Vice Reine was also great. It hit the proper balance of "live show" and "dance party".

They were also reasonably well attended. I mean, not great, but enough that the room didn't feel empty and we didn't take a bath on them. As you know, the rule of thumb is generally "if it's a show jwz is looking forward to, nobody's going to show." You don't want me as a fan, I'm apparently the kiss of death.

So yay, go team!

Some upcoming shows that I strongly recommend: This Friday, Hubba are bringing the Dungeons & Dragons sleaze. Then next Friday, Meat Beat Manifesto! It's been like a thousand years since I've seen them. And of course in two weeks, on Friday Oct 28, our fifteenth annual Halloween party. R. Black did another fantastic job on that poster, did he not? You're definitely going to want to buy advance tickets for Halloween. (Oh yeah, and then we also have a little Halloween party on Saturday, and a little Halloween party on Monday too, NBD.)