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The meaning of a String – Reading Borges – At the library – Ricardo del Ponte – Today’s Borges. (Map this!)


No puedo combinar unos caracteres dhcmrlchtdj que la divina Biblioteca no haya previsto y que en alguna de sus lenguas secretas no encierren un terrible sentido.
– Jorge Luis Borges, “La Biblioteca de Babel”

agcttttcat tctgactgca acgggcaata tgtctctgtg tggattaaaa aaagagtgtc
tgatagcagc ttctgaactg gttacctgcc gtgagtaaat taaaatttta ttgacttagg
tcactaaata ctttaaccaa tataggcata gcgcacagac agataaaaat tacagagtac

The meaning of the above string stands somewhere between pure nonsense and extra-ordinary. It is also possible that it is one of the most amazing phrases that humans have known, but the chances of that are slim. You have probably guessed that the string of letters is not particularly random; for one it is a tedious repetition of only four letters A-T-C-G, letters that encode DNA sequences. This particular one is a part of one of the 4493 genes that make up the genome of Escherichia coli K12, a rather useful organism to science. The Library of Babel, if it existed, would contain the blueprints necessary to create all living beings, all those that are extinct, and all those yet to evolve.

Fred Gault was shocked that I had never read Borges. “You must start with this story, ‘The Library of Babel‘.”, he opined. Since then I have read much by the Argentine author, but “The Library” was the first, so I HAD to visit the library that inspired it. Out of the way, in the Boedo district of Buenos Aires, the Miguel Cané library is a small branch library where Borges worked between 1937 and 1946. I had imagined a vast library with the stacks stretching almost to the vanishing point, but the entrance to Miguel Cané indicated a small local branch.

…debe existir un libro que sea la cifra y el compendio perfecto de todos los demás: algún bibliotecario lo ha recorrido y es análogo a un dios.
– Jorge Luis Borges, “La Biblioteca de Babel”

The Librarian

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“It is forbidden to take pictures here!”, said the man severely, in between puffs of his pipe. His thick glasses and light blue lab coat gave him an air of authority.”Who are you, and what do you do here?”, I asked in a loud stentorian voice, barely able to contain my anger. I had driven 37,743 miles, taken two subway trains, and walked several blocks to Miguel Cané, and I resented being pushed around. “I am Ricardo del Ponte, in charge of cataloging, and a Professor of History.”, replied the man, “And I repeat you may not take pictures!”

I had come to Miguel Cané not expecting to see much, but as I talked to the man my anger ebbed. Here he was in real life, a passionate and eccentric librarian. Our conversation covered Aaron Copeland, Beowulf, Wagner, Edgar Allen Poe, and a vast array of other topics. With intensity and passion he described the UDC and the codes for its main categories. His manner softened. “Come, I will show you the room where Borges studied”, as he shuffled to the stairs.

One of the first English translations of Borges’ work were done by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in collaboration with him. After Borges’ death, his widow forbade any subsequent publication of those translations.

A small corner of Miguel Cané is dedicated to Borges, the small room where he studied Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and Dante’s “Divina Commedia“. A case in the corner displays several of first editions, including Ficciones. “I understand the importance of Borges to Argentine literature, but I find some of his work rather infantile.”, confided del Ponte. With the energy of a boy he showed us the rare book room, filled with irreplaceable volumes. “They aren’t in the UDC system yet, but they will be!”, he said with glee.

When we got back to the apartment, I started to do the research for this article and received quite a shock. In my ignorance I had assumed that Borges, given his stature, had been in charge of the Miguel Cané library, which was turned out to be false. If this were The Garden of Branching Paths, and I had arrived at Miguel Cané in the late ’30s or mid 40’s the man in the light blue lab coat would have been none other than Jorge Luis Borges, for his real job was that of cataloger.

6 Responses to “The Library of Babel: A Visit to Miguel Cané”

  1. Fred says:

    Who is to say that Borges wasn’t being channeled through the librarian. I suspect that Buenos Aires is a city in which all the magic has not yet been used up.

  2. ada says:

    I love the story of the librarian/cataloger. What a site it would have been to have seen Borges cataloging and dusting the books. It certainly adds a new perspective on the Library of Babel.

  3. Shreesh says:

    Fred –
    I think that there is something about working as a cataloger that tends to accrete erudite and eccentric fellows. If we were to sweep the corners of the world we might find thousands of near Borges, hundreds of almost identical Borges, and a few that would appear to be almost exact replicas.

    Ada –
    The library is so small, that the cataloging only can only take a few hours max. The rest of the time Borges was curled up in the upper reaches of Miguel Cané, reading Gibbon, etal. That is the image I find lovely.

  4. mariano says:

    Shreesh y Neena, les escribe Mariano de la vinoteca, en sus últimos días en Buenos Aires … después de ver la fascinante página web que desarrollaron y compartir en cierta forma el viaje que están realizando, sólo me queda felicitarlos por la excelente idea que han tenido cuando partieron desde Canadá … y ahora entendí un poco mejor la experiencia en la biblioteca … espero dejarles un mensaje más interesante la próxima vez, pero no quería dejar pasar la oportunidad de escribirles ahora por primera vez … and sorry because my message isn´t in English, but as you have realized, it´s a little rusty, so I prefer writing in Spanish, at least this time … felicitaciones una vez más !!

  5. Ram dada says:

    Very cool!
    I imagine the musty odor of old books in an old library.
    A library that contains a book about the mother of all libraries — awesome!

    Shreesh the 3D concept of the infinite library of hexagonal galleries stretching out in all three dimensions to infinity, somehow reminds me of the gripping game world: “Riven” (remember that five-CDROM computer game by you’d gifted me back in 1998) when you worked for Brøderbund Software in Novato, CA. The story began with the book of Atrus whose magical pages link to other worlds–Ages. I’d imagined machine-created worlds with infinite recursion.

  6. Shreesh says:

    @Ram Dada,
    I was discussing the Index of all books with a mathematician. She felt it was akin to the “Set of all sets” or the village where “The barber shaves everyone who doesn’t shave himself”
    Unfortunately I didn’t get to play much Riven since I was debugging the data handling for the DVD version! It was a fantastic game, what little I saw of it.
    Just as we speculate that our universe is homogeneous and isotropic, so too the library(universe) spans outwards in a hexagonal, beehive like manner.

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