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Tar for Mortar: "The Library of Babel" and the Dream of Totality.

Tar for Mortar: "The Library of Babel" and the Dream of Totality

Jonathan Basile

New York: dead letter office, BABEL Working Group, 2018. 108 pp.

Jonathan Basile's Tar for Mortar is no ordinary book. If it had been published in the 1990s, perhaps it would have been accompanied by a CD in a sleeve taped to the back cover. The book is a complementary piece to an earlier project which attempts to digitally recreate the library described in Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel." Given its publication in 2018, we are in no luck in terms of a CD, (1) but the digital component is easily accessible via the internet at website I would recommend to anyone interested in Borges, information technology or internet culture in general.

An additional uncommon aspect of this book is that it is published under a creative commons license which, according to the copyright page, "means you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors..." (4). The decision to publish this way is a clear doff of the cap to authors such as Pablo Katchadjian, whose book El Aleph engordado is described as a "brilliant work" on Basile's website ("About"). (2)


I use the word "projects" here in the plural given that essentially houses two, although one is inspired and based on the other. The first is Basile's attempt to produce the texts of Borges's Library of Babel, a library that supposedly contains all possible human expression. A visitor to the website will notice that Basile is relatively faithful to the description provided by the narrator of the story. One has the option to arbitrarily browse through books in a digitally produced library by choosing: a hexagonal chamber, one of four walls in the chamber, one of five shelves on the wall, one of thirty-two volumes on a shelf. Then after selecting a book, one chooses which of the 410 pages of that book to read (each page contains forty lines of eighty characters per line). The project also maintains a forum, currently with 665 members who, similar to the librarians of the story, browse through the volumes in search of a word or a phrase that makes some kind of sense.

Because most pages in the books of this digital library contain seemingly endless strings of random letters, Basile has added a function to the project called "Anglishize" which searches for legitimate English words. The tool mostly produces words that one looks up in the dictionary when playing Scrabble and nearly all results are attached to a larger string of characters. For the impatient user, a "Search" function allows one to find not only words, but whole paragraphs (up to 3200 characters). A close version of the first sentence of Don Quijote, for example, can be found on page 374 of a book titled qztzjet,y:

[mathematical expression not reproducible]

This first project gives us an idea of the astonishing vastness of the library described in Borges's story, especially since its inhabitants lack the search functions provided by Basile. What is even more frightening is that, as Basile admits, the project is not entirely faithful to the story. William Goldbloom Bloch calculates that, without taking the titles on the spines into consideration, and taking the words of the narrator as reflecting his reality, there are 25 (1,320,000) books in the Library of Babel. Basile claims that his digital library contains all possible pages of 3,200 characters using a 29-character set (the 26 lower case letters of the English alphabet, space, comma and period). This amounts to 29 (3,200) pages (not books). In other words, Basile's project only permutates a set of 29 characters in 3,200 character slots and then "glues" random pages together. For it to truly reflect the narrator's description of the library it would have to permutate the 29 characters in 1,320,000 character slots.

I raise this point not to criticize Basile's project, he himself recognizes its shortcoming, but rather to show that he makes a point here, which is discussed further in the book: Borges's Library of Babel, like Basile's project, only provides the illusion of totality.

The second project included on the same website, is an exploration into the visual realm by replacing the characters on a page with pixels of color and creating vast arrays of colored pixels (which look like static for the most part).

When creating a Digital Humanities project, which I would argue that Basile's projects fit the description, we can assess whether the digital aspect of the research helps the creator in their own research, whether it can be used by other researchers to make additional discoveries, or both. As it stands, I judge Basile's projects as belonging to the first category, at least in terms of the humanities. Computer scientists and information technology specialists may find use in the project for their fields, but outside of the technical world, it is difficult for me to recognize its use for other scholars of the humanities. Other than finding new words or ASCII art, there does not appear to be much additional research for the humanities scholar. This is not to say that the projects are useless, however, far from it. In my assessment, they belong to the first category, they assist the creator's studies more than those of other researchers. They have allowed one researcher, Jonathan Basile, to think of the Library of Babel in a different light, demystify the possibilities of technology and make some important contributions to our understanding of Borges's story, which he presents in the book.


Besides accompanying the website, Tar for Mortar forms part of the growing list of studies that focus--for the most part--on a single work of Borges. (3) After a brief introduction, the book is partitioned into three chapters. The first, "The Library of Babel," takes up more than half of the content of this small book and confronts a variety of issues in Borges's story. These include an interesting discussion about the physical structure of the library, the problem of infinity, autobiographical similarities between Borges and the narrator of the story, gender and the general lack of the bodily, the title and the connection to the Tower of Babel, and the development of the story from "La biblioteca total." In this chapter, Basile argues that the subtle irony found in the story paints the narrator--who believes in the totality of the library--as someone who opposes the views Borges expresses elsewhere.

The second chapter, "Non-Fiction ?" explains the digital projects, before making a comparison between the atomist tradition and their conception of the world repeating itself, Nietzsche's Eternal Return and Borges thinking about the Eternal Return via Nietzsche in essays such as "La doctrina de los ciclos" and "El tiempo circular." It is argued here, that Borges relates Nietzsche's Eternal Return to the atomist tradition when in reality, Nietzsche, like Borges, is at odds with himself on multiple occasions.

The final chapter's title is a throwback to an earlier century which provides a fitting contrast to the very twenty-first century topic of the internet. Basile in this chapter, "In Which it is Argued, Despite Popular Opinion to the Contrary, That Borges Did Not Invent the Internet," argues that critics who believe that Borges expresses the idea of a totalizing knowledge which can then be taken as a kind of precursor to the internet (comprising a kind of totalizing knowledge) have misread both Borges and digital technology.

Throughout the book, Basile walks the reader through his process, errors and self-doubt included. The author poses many questions, some of which he attempts to answer and some which he leaves open for others. Overall, Tar for Mortar is an intriguing read for any scholar of Borges, especially one embarldng on a serious study of "La biblioteca de Babel," and consideration of the digital component at should be counted as a prerequisite for such a study.

Christopher D. Wames Pacheco

University of Pittsburgh


"About.", <>

Almeida, Ivan and Cristina Parodi, eds. El fragmento infinito: estudios sobre "Tlon, Habar, Orbis Tertius" de J.L. Borges. Zaragoza: Universidad de Zaragoza, 2009.

Ana Dobratinich, Hector Gonzalo. "El otro Borges, juez del mismo Borges. Derechos de autor y usos artisticos de la obra de Borges: El Aleph engordado." Variaciones Borges 43 (2017): 183-202.

Bloch, William. The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Pitlevnik, Leonardo. "El Sr K. autor de 'El Aleph': Concepto de original y copia a partir de un caso penal." Variaciones Borges 47 (2019): 147-71.

Quain Quiroga, Rodrigo. Borges y la memoria: un viaje por el cerebro humano, de "Funes el memorioso" a la neurona de Jennifer Aniston. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2011.

(1) Although I doubt a CD would contain the space required to store such a project.

(2) For more about the case of Pablo Katchadjian and accusations of plagiarism, see Pitlevnik and Ana Dobratinich.

(3) This list includes Cristina Parodi and Ivan Almeida's El fragmento infinito: estudios sobre "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" de J. L. Borges (2009), William Goldbloom Bloch's The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel (2008), and Rodrigo Quan Quiroga's Borges y la memoria: un viaje por el cerebro humano, de "Funes el memorioso" a la neurona de Jennifer Aniston (2011).
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Author:Pacheco, Christopher D. Warner
Publication:Variaciones Borges
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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