“The Library of Babel” (La biblioteca de Babel) is one of the best-known stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Originally published in 1941, it was not translated in English until 1962, but quickly became both a cult classic and a staple of modern fiction courses. This is a story which attracts obsessive fans, of the same type camped out on the sidewalk for days in order to be able to buy tickets to the first screening of The Fellowship of the Ring. For a certain type of personality, which I suspect is statistically over-represented among people working in mathematics, Borges’ method of playing with casual assumptions about reality is both intoxicating and addictive, and his concept of a library primarily composed of gibberish but which also contains all the knowledge of the world (were there only an efficient way to locate the pearls of sense amidst the sea of nonsense) is just too apt a description of the modern scholarly world to pass up.
The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel includes a translation of “The Library of Babel” by Andrew Hurley, followed by a number of chapters exploring mathematical ideas mentioned in, or somehow relevant to, Borges’ text. These ideas include combinatorics (calculating the number of books in the library is a simple proposition, given Borges’ precise description), information theory, topology, and geometry. The chapters may be read in any order, and require no more than high school mathematics to understand.
You need no advanced mathematics to understand “The Library of Babel” but chances are good that if you like the story, you’ll enjoy Professor Bloch’s excursions. It’s an approach similar to Isaac Asimov’s annotated versions of everything from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan: the literary text is used as a springboard to discuss somewhat related ideas which Professor Bloch finds interesting, and he is marvelously unencumbered by concerns about whether the English Department would consider his concerns to be straying outside the bounds of literature. In fact, Professor Bloch says his ideal reader would be the polymath Umberto Eco, best known for his novel The Name of the Rose (which includes a monk named Jorge of Burgos). Fortunately, you don’t have to be Eco to enjoy either Borges’ story or Professor Bloch’s discursions.
William Goldbloom Bloch is Professor of Mathematics and Associate Provost at Wheaton College.
Sarah Boslaugh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Performance Review Analyst for BJC HealthCare and an Adjunct Instructor in the Washington University School of Medicine, both in St. Louis, MO. Her books include An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming: Using Syntax for Data Management (Sage, 2004), Secondary Data Sources for Public Health: A Practical Guide (Cambridge, 2007), and Statistics in a Nutshell (O'Reilly, forthcoming), and she served as Editor-in-Chief for The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology (Sage, 2008).