Inspirations: The Library of Babel

David Copperfield_full length image_Nicola Anthony_Found objects, book and music stand, artwork by Nicola anthony_COPYRIGHT
David Copperfield, (detail), artwork by Nicola Anthony
David Copperfield, (detail), artwork by Nicola Anthony

Whilst my artwork David Copperfield is being exhibited at Ikkan Art Gallery in Singapore, I wanted to share one of the inspirations behind the piece with you. It is a book called The Library of Babel, a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). The author imagines a universe in the form of a vast library containing all possible 410-page books of a certain format.

Though the order and content of the books is random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just a few basic characters (23 letters, spaces and punctuation marks). Borges’s narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains the bare necessities for human survival—and four walls of bookshelves. Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.

Despite — indeed, because of — this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair. This leads some librarians to superstitions and cult-like behaviour, such as the “Purifiers”, who arbitrarily destroy books they deem nonsense as they scour through the library seeking the “Crimson Hexagon” and its illustrated, magical books. Another is the belief that since all books exist in the library, somewhere one of the books must be a perfect index of the library’s contents; some even believe that a messianic figure known as the “Man of the Book” has read it, and they travel through the library seeking him.

David Copperfield, (detail), artwork by Nicola Anthony
David Copperfield, (detail), artwork by Nicola Anthony

'David Copperfield' (sculpture) by Nicola AnthonySmall_David Copperfield_Eleonora Cecchini .jpgPh._006

David Copperfield_Nicola Anthony_music stand shot_small
David Copperfield, Nicola Anthony, Found objects, book and music stand (c)

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