Several commentors on my recent article about Salman Rushdie’s imaginative foretelling of the Web have suggested that Rushdie’s vision — of a library made up of the Stream of all Stories ever told — was influenced by Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Library of Babel — which describes the universe as a library containing all books. There certainly is a resemblance, in that both Rushdie and Borges imagine a library of all knowledge. But the nature of the libraries pictured by the two writers is quite different. Borges’ library is very much a print library, made up of physical books. Much of the description of the library (as in the quote below) involves the intricate geometry of the shelves and the exact description of the books in the library.

In Borges’ library, as in the traditional print library, the books sit on the shelf, with no suggestion of their being connected to each other, no sense of movement. Rushdie, on the other hand, imagines a library in which the books flow in a stream — twisting and stretching and weaving in and out of each other. As I’ve discussed in the previous article, Rushdie’s vision resonates with recent discussions of the growing sense of the Web’s Stream-like, flowing nature and also with the coming revolution in libraries, as books are digitized, remaking them into Rushdie’s “fluid form.” The excerpts below give a sense of the different visions of the Library of Rushdie and Borges.

From Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of stories:

[The Ocean of the Stream of Stories is] “made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” Rushdie imagines this Ocean as “the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.” [See previous article for complete passage and for picture credit.]

From Borges’ The Library of Babel:

“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. … There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color.” [The picture accompanies the Web version of story, and is not credited; it appears on numerous other sites.]

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Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

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