The Library of Babel, infinite monkeys, signals and noise

With reference to the trendy game Wordle and the expertise of James Joyce, someone in the Classic Literature Group on Facebook made a post asking, “What do the writers think of this idea, that every book is simply a different combo of 26 letters?”

Oh, boy…

Missing the Point

You forgot capital letters! My native language has letters with diacritics! What about Chinese LOL!

The point is not how many symbols there are in a written or other symbolic system. The point is that any finite set of symbols is utterly minuscule compared to what can be created from them.

The Power of Symbols

The question seems to be, How can anything important or interesting be made from such a small number of insignificant, boring little thingies? But the truth is, everything, important and interesting or not, is made of those boring little thingies. They are the definition of significant. They signify.

Someone palpably wistful said, “The difference between my bank account and [that of] the richest person in the world is just 10 little numbers arranged in such a way…”

Someone similarly clever said, “A, B, C, D, E, F, and G just called. They’d like to have a word with you about symphonies.”

Combinatorics in Fiction

What I immediately thought of was not other sets of symbols, but the library of all possible books, an idea that’s explored in the Jose Louis Borges story “The Library of Babel”. I find the concept too overwhelming to think about for long.

In contrast, the idea of monkeys with typewriters who eventually produce Shakespeare plays by chance is downright funny. Douglas Adams refers to these monkeys in the first novel of his five-book trilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In Gulliver’s Travels, satirist Jonathan Swift wrote about The Engine, a fictitious machine made of little wood blocks that could be turned using cranks to reveal new patterns of words, which if they happened to make a bit of sense would be copied down for use in the writing of “books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”.

Sense and Nonsense

Perhaps Swift would have poked fun at celebrated modern author James Joyce, who certainly seems to have been writing inscrutable nonsense on purpose. One Classic Literature Group member commented, “[Joyce] sat with no less than 16 open books from various languages & disciplines including dictionaries and such every day when writing his [magnum] opus.” Because yeah, the best way to write a book is to mechanically hunt down words that you yourself don’t know, so as to be sure your readers won’t understand them (?!).

My favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic goes like this:

Calvin: I like to verb words.
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing? Now it’s something you *do*. It got verbed.
Calvin: Verbing weirds language.
Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

Thanks, Joyce! Nearly there!

Speaking of Calvin and Hobbes, I can’t find it but I swear there’s a comic strip where Calvin says something like he doesn’t need to start his homework yet, because he knows a large proportion of it will consist of the letter ‘e’ or some such thing, so that part can be considered complete already, and he just needs a bit time to finish the rest. And yet, knowing statistics about English consonants and vowels is different from writing; an essay is not a game of Wordle.

The Value of Fresh Perspective

Confronted with the notion that “every book is simply a different combo of 26 letters”, a Classic Literature Group member with a tediously cliche fountain pen image for his profile pic responded: “As a writer I can only speak for all of us when I say ‘that’s nice’.”

Just so you know? He doesn’t speak for me.

The notion that every book is “simply” a combination of letters is not at all condescending or dismissive or simplistic. It’s a statistical-mathematical insight that highlights the skill writers need to have to hear the signal in the noise, in the absolutely unthinkable amount of pure entropic chaos that surrounds us.

In fact, what we write is so unfathomably unlikely to spontaneously manifest on its own that it’s better thought of as created fresh from nothing whatsoever. That we are able to communicate ideas by means of symbols is a nearly unbelievable miracle, and those who can do it well are not just throwing darts at dictionaries.

In some sense, okay, yes, it’s boringly obvious that writing is not a simple matter of banging on typewriter keys, turning cranks, or jotting down a bunch of letters in statistically appropriate quantities.

Still. Looking at writing as if it were literally a simple process of arranging a few symbols sheds light on just how not-simple it really is.