*Translated from the German by Erik Born*

**Publication Note**

As far as we are aware, the source for this translation is in the public domain, since the text was originally published in Germany in 1904 and the author passed away in 1910.

**Translator’s Preface**

Kurd Lasswitz’s short story “Die Universalbibliothek” is a historical work of speculative fiction about the desirability of creating a universal library, which would contain not only everything already written in the past but also anything possibly written in the future. First published in 1904, the story presents one of the earliest formulations of what would subsequently become a popular trope in the global tradition of speculative fiction.[1] However, Lasswitz’s seminal take on the universal library remains relatively unknown outside of the German-speaking world, at least in part because the story has never been translated into English in its entirety.

At first glance, “Die Universalbibliothek” may appear to offer little more than an elementary lesson in arithmetic with the main character, a mathematics professor, serving as a thinly veiled stand-in for the author.[2] Admittedly, the calculations involved in the story will not dazzle any mathematicians, and the somewhat predictable dialogue, rigid characterizations, and almost non-existent plot will hardly overwhelm the literati. Nevertheless, the productive tension between the contents of the story and its narrative framework make the otherwise prosaic text, which was originally presented as a “scientific fairy tale,” into much more than the sum of its parts. Over the course of the story, there is a dramatic reversal of opinion about the initial dream of creating a universal library, which quickly changes into a nightmare for all those involved in pondering its implications. At the same time, the story also provides a unique response to the common anxiety about the impossibility of novelty in modernity, showing that the interaction of scientific content and literary forms can always produce something new.

The dramatic setting of “Die Universalbibliothek” updates the classical form of the symposium for Late Imperial Germany with the characters drinking not wine but beer, “a fine Kulmbacher.” The interlocutors consist of the mathematics professor, his wife, their niece, and their friend, a newspaper editor who is paying them a visit in the hopes of acquiring new material from the professor for publication. Immediately frustrating this expectation, the professor laments that “so terribly many superfluous things are already being written, and, unfortunately, printed too.” His wife further doubts the possibility that there is “anything new to print at all,” since the editor must already have gone through “every possible way you could put together a couple of letters.” Taking this wager literally, the interlocutors set out to determine the number of volumes that would be contained in a universal library, the amount of space they would occupy, and the time that would be required to travel from one end of the library to the other. Even though our powers of creativity may be infinite, as the newspaper editor insists, the creation of a universal library is still a finite project, as the mathematics professor demonstrates. Still, the dimensions of the universal library, though finite, exceed those of the known universe and defy any attempt at comprehension, thereby presenting a conflict between the powers of mathematical reason and literary imagination. With crucial interventions from the two female interlocutors, the conflict resolves at the end of the story, as the professor agrees to write down their very conversation about the universal library so that the editor will have something to publish after all.

Unfortunately, Lasswitz’s unassuming yet provocative story remains relatively unknown outside of the German-speaking world for a variety of reasons. In general, the story has been subsumed within larger traditions of speculation cutting across utopian fiction, the history of philosophy, and cultural practices of library science dating back to antiquity. In his seminal essay on “The Total Library,” for instance, Jorge Luis Borges presents the German mathematician Gustav Theodor Fechner as the “belated inventor” of the universal library and Lasswitz, who composed a biography of Fechner and edited several of his mathematical treatises, as its “first exponent” [3]. Surprisingly, however, Borges ultimately misses the point of Lasswitz’s story entirely, concluding that its author “urges mankind to construct that inhuman library, which chance would organize and which would eliminate intelligence”[4]. Precisely the opposite is true, as any reader of “Die Universalbibliothek” will immediately recognize. Far from urging the construction of a universal library, the story ends with a plea never to search for a book in some mechanical fabrication of the universal library, and instead to return to the arduous, though ultimately more meaningful, manual labor of authorship.

The failed reception of “Die Universalbibliothek” was further exacerbated by an abridged translation, second-hand commentaries, and paraphrastic scholarship along the lines of Borges’ dismissive admiration. In the English-speaking world, Lasswitz’s story has been available only in an abridged version, translated by Willy Ley and published in Clifton Fadiman’s popular anthology *Fantasia Mathematica *(1958), which did not indicate the existence of any editorial omissions. On the whole, the abridged translation omitted aspects of the frame narrative apparently considered to have no immediate bearing on the mathematical demonstration. Many of these omissions concerned the dramatic action, including not only relatively minor interjections but also the story’s more meaningful dramatic setting and its thematization of the materiality of writing. Other omissions were primarily references to the German canon: the party’s discussion of signatures is abridged with an invented reference to William Shakespeare, and recitations of lyrics by Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are entirely omitted. For any critical reading of the story, these omissions have had the detrimental effect of sundering the story from both its German cultural context and its deliberate thematization of the German canon, as well as drastically reducing the female interlocutors’ subversive role in the otherwise seemingly male-dominated conversation.

Until now, there has not been a complete English translation of “The Universal Library,” an ironic confirmation of a concern expressed at the end of the story, when the professor warns the editor that future readers will dismiss his account of their conversation as “one of the superfluous volumes,” the ones consisting of random-generated nonsense that would need to be weeded out from the shelves of the universal library. My hope, in providing the following complete translation of “Die Universalbibliothek,” is that future readers will find Lasswitz’s take on the universal library to be anything but superfluous.

**The Universal Library (1904)**

“Why don’t you come sit down over here, Max,” said Professor Wallhausen. “You really won’t find anything for your periodical in my documents there. What can I offer you—beer or wine?”

Max Burkel walked over to the table, and deliberately raised his eyebrows. Then, slowly and ponderously, he sank into an armchair. “Actually, I’ve become a teetotaler. But on vacation—I see you have such a splendid Kulmbacher there—oh, thank you very much, my dear girl—not so full! Well, cheers, old boy, cheers, my esteemed lady! Prosit, Miss Briggen! It’s awfully nice to be here again.[5] However, it won’t do you any good, you still have to write something for me.”

“I really don’t know of anything right now. Besides, so terribly many superfluous things are already being written, and, unfortunately, printed too.”

“Honestly, you don’t need to tell that to a tormented editor like me. The question is only what, out of everything, is superfluous. Authors and readers have very different opinions on the matter. And whatever critics deem superfluous is precisely what reaches the likes of us. Ha, I’m glad,” he said, rubbing his hands together with pleasure, “that my stand-in at work will have to sweat it out for three more weeks.”

“I’m amazed,” said the professor’s wife, “that you even have anything new to print at all. I should think that you’ve already tried out every possible way you could put together a couple of letters.”

“That’s certainly true, Mrs. Wallhausen—one should think that—but the human spirit is inexhaustible.”

“In repetition, you mean.”

“Thank God, yes!” Burkel laughed. “But also in terms of novelty.”

“Nevertheless,” Professor Wallhausen commented, “we are able to express everything in letters, everything ever granted to humanity in terms of historical events, scientific knowledge, the power of poetry, and the teachings of wisdom. At least, so far as these things can be expressed in language. After all, our books transmit knowledge and preserve the treasure amassed by the work of thought. However, the number of possible combinations of a given number of letters is limited. Therefore, all possible literature must be able to be put down in a finite number of volumes.”

“Well, dear friend, now you’re talking again more like a mathematician than a philosopher. How can the inexhaustible be finite?”

“If you permit me, I’ll figure out for you how many volumes the universal library would have, right away.”

“Hey, uncle, are you going to get all scholarly?” Susanne Briggen asked.

“But Susie, for a young lady who just got out of boarding school, nothing can be too scholarly, right?”

“That’s kind of you, uncle, but I was only asking to know whether to grab my sewing, because I can think better while sewing, you know.”

“Ha, little smarty-pants, you really wanted to know whether I was going to deliver a lengthy speech. That’s not my intention. But could you just pass me a sheet of paper and a pencil from my writing desk?”

“Bring the logarithm table too,” Burkel remarked dryly.

“For God’s sake,” the professor’s wife protested.

“No, no, it’s not necessary,” the professor said. “And you don’t need to show off your sewing, Susie.”

“Here’s more comfortable work for your hands,” the professor’s wife said, pushing a bowl of apples and nuts over to her.

“Thank you,” Susanne said, grabbing the nutcracker. “I’ll start with the hardest nuts.”

“Now, for starters, our friend here can answer,” the professor began. “I’ll ask: If we set everything up simply and forego particular aesthetic considerations regarding different kinds of script, and we also take into account a reader who is not too fussy, who only cares about the meaning—”

“There is no such reader.”

“Let’s just assume there is. How many different letters would we need for the entirety of great literature and light fiction?”

“Well,” said Burkel, “if we limit ourselves to the upper- and lowercase letters of the Latin alphabet, the customary punctuation marks, the numerals, and—don’t forget—the space.”

Susanne looked up inquisitively from her bowl of nuts.

“That’s the piece of type for the gaps. The typesetter uses it to keep individual words apart from each other and to fill in the empty spaces. All of that wouldn’t be too much. But for scientific books, what a heap of symbols you mathematicians have!”

“We help each other out there through the use of indices, little numbers placed above or below the letters of the alphabet, such as a_{0}, a_{1}, a_{2}, etc. For that, we’d need only a second and third row of numbers from 0 to 9. Indeed, we could even use this system, with sufficient agreement, to represent any desired foreign text.”

“Sure, I don’t mind. I wouldn’t put that past your ideal reader. In any case, then, I reckon that we wouldn’t need more than around a hundred different characters to be able to express in writing everything conceivable.”

“Now, consider this. How thick do we want to make each volume?”

“I think that anyone can write pretty exhaustively about a topic were one to fill up a volume of five hundred pages. In terms of the page, let’s imagine around 40 lines with 50 characters each (of course, always including spaces, punctuation marks, etc.). Then, for each volume, we’d have 40 × 50 × 500 letters, which makes—I’d rather have you figure it out.”

“One million,” said the professor. “So, if we put together our 100 characters, which can repeat at random, in any kind of order, so that they fill up a volume of a million letters, then we’d get a written work of some kind. And if we imagined *every possible* combination that can be made in this way in a purely mechanical manner, then what we’d have is precisely the collected works of everything that has ever been written in the past or can be written in the future.”

Burkel gave his friend a powerful slap on the shoulder.

“Hey, I’m going to subscribe to the universal library. Then, I’ll have all the future volumes of my periodical over and done with, already in the printer’s copy. I won’t need to worry about any of the articles. This is truly magnificent for the publisher: the elimination of the author from the entire business! The replacement of the writer by the combinatorial machine! A triumph of technology!”

“What?” cried Mrs. Wallhausen. “The library contains everything? Even all of Goethe? The Bible? The complete edition of the works of every philosopher who has ever lived?”

“Yes, and even with all the variant interpretations nobody has even thought up yet. In it, you’ll find all the lost writings of Plato or Tacitus, too, along with translations. What’s more, all the future works by both of us, all the forgotten and still undelivered speeches in parliament, the universal declaration of peace, the history of the wars to follow it—”

“And the book of timetables, uncle!” Susanne exclaimed. “That’s your favorite.” [6]

“Of course, and all the essays you wrote in German class for Miss Grazelau.”

“Oh, if only I had the book when I was at boarding school! But I think what we’re talking about is one complete volume—”

“Excuse me, Miss Briggen,” Burkel interrupted, “don’t forget the spaces. Even the smallest verse could have a volume for itself, and the rest would be empty. We could also have the longest works in the universal library—if they didn’t fit in one volume, they would simply be continued in another.”

“Well, I would thank you for helping me find anything in it,” the professor’s wife said.

“That’s precisely the catch,” the professor said with a smile, leaning back in his armchair, and contentedly following the smoke from his cigar with his eyes. “Admittedly, it may seem as though the task of finding something would be made easier by the fact that the library would also have to contain its own catalog—”

“Well, then!”

“Yes, but how would you find it? And even if you were to find a volume, you wouldn’t make any headway, since the catalog contains not only the correct titles and shelf marks, but also every possible incorrect one.”

“Damn, that’s true.”

“Hmm! There would be some difficulties, of course. For example, let’s pick up the first volume in our library. The first page is empty, the second too, and so on, all 500 pages. That is to say, this is the volume in which the character for the space is repeated a million times.”

“At least it won’t contain any nonsense,” Mrs. Wallhausen interjected.

“Some consolation! Now, the second volume is also empty, completely empty, up to the last page, all the way at the bottom, in the millionth character position, where there is a shy little ‘a’. The same again in the third volume, except the ‘a’ has moved forward one position, and in the final position there is now, once again, a space. And so, in each volume, the ‘a’ pushes forward one position farther to the front, over the course of a million volumes, until it happily reaches the first position in the first volume of the second million. Apart from that, this interesting volume contains nothing. And so it goes for our first hundred million volumes, until each of the hundred characters has made its lonely journey from the back to the front. Then, the same thing happens with ‘aa’ or with any other two characters in every possible position. One volume yields only periods, another only question marks.”

“Well,” said Burkel, “we would recognize and discard the volumes without any content pretty quickly.”

“Hmm, perhaps—but the worst thing comes after one finds a seemingly rational volume. For example, let’s say you want to look up something in *Faust *and even happen to find the volume with the correct beginning. [7] After reading a little bit, all of a sudden, the text goes on, ‘Abracadabra, there’s nothing’s here!’ or simply ‘aaaaa’ … Or there’s the start of a logarithmic table, although nobody knows whether it’s correct, since our library contains not only everything true, but also everything false. You must not be deceived by the headings. A volume may begin, ‘History of the Thirty Years’ War,’ and then go on, ‘When Prince Blücher married the Queen of Dahomey in Thermopylae…’” [8]

“Hey, uncle, that’s something for me!” Susanne exclaimed cheerfully. “I could write the volumes, because if it’s a matter of mixing things up, I’m developing a great talent for that. The universal library would certainly contain the opening lines of *Iphigenia *as I once recited them:

‘Out from your shadows, bustling treetop,

Obeying need, not my own desires,

I want to sit down on this stone bench.’ [9]

“Were it printed like that, I would have been justified after all. I would also be able to find the long letter that I wrote to the two of you; it disappeared suddenly before I could send it. Mika had set down her schoolbooks on top of it. Oh dear,” she interrupted herself in embarrassment, brushing her rebellious brown hair off her brow. “Miss Grazelau explicitly warned me that I should be careful not to chatter too much!”

“Here you are totally justified,” her uncle consoled her. “Our library contains not only all your letters, but also all the speeches you’ve ever made or ever will make—”

“Oh, then I’d prefer that you don’t publish the library!”

“Don’t worry, they would be signed not only with your name, but also that of Goethe and all possible names in the world. Our friend here, for example, would also find his own signature responsibly attached to articles containing every conceivable kind of libel, so that his entire life would not suffice to serve the prison sentences. There would be one book by him where after every sentence, it would say that it’s false, and another volume where after exactly the same sentences, it would swear that it’s true—”

“Well, I’ve had enough,” Burkel said laughing. “I knew as soon as you started that you were going to be feeding us lines. So, I won’t subscribe to the universal library, since it would be impossible to pick out the sense from the nonsense, the true from the false. Were I to find however many million volumes all claiming to contain the true history of the German Empire in the twentieth century and all completely contradicting each other, then I could just as easily take up the works of historians themselves. I’ll pass.”

“That’s very clever of you. Otherwise, you would have taken on a pretty burden. I’m not fibbing, by the way. I didn’t claim that you would be able to find what you need in the universal library, but only that we would be able to determine its exact number of volumes, which would have to comprise, along with everything nonsensical, all possible meaningful literature.”

“Just go ahead and calculate it,” said the professor’s wife. “Otherwise, this white sheet of paper will never let you rest.”

“It’s very simple. I can do it in my head. We have only to consider how we’re going to produce our library. First, we put down each of our hundred characters once. Then, we add each of our hundred characters to each of them, so that we have a hundred times a hundred groups for every two characters. When we add each character for a third time, then we get 100 × 100 × 100 groups of three characters each, and so forth. And since we have a million possible positions per volume, then we would have as many volumes as the number we’d get when we use 100 as a multiplication factor a million times. Since 100 is just ten times ten, we would get the same thing as when writing ten as a factor two million times. This is simply a one with two million zeros. Here it is: ten to the power of two million: 10^{2,000,000}.”

The professor held up the paper.

“Yeah,” his wife said, “you make the matter easy for yourself. Go ahead and write it out.”

“Not likely! I’d have to write day and night without any breaks for at least two weeks. In print, the number would be roughly four kilometers long.”

“Ugh,” Susanne said. “How do you pronounce it?”

“We don’t have a name for the number. Indeed, we do not have any means at all of even illustrating it to any extent. This amount is colossal, even though it can be shown to be finite. Whatever enormous quantities you might name would vanish against this numerical monster.”

“How about expressing it in trillions?” asked Burkel.

“Yes, a trillion is a very nice number, a million million, a one with 18 zeros. If you divide the number of volumes in our library by a trillion, you could cancel out 18 of the two million zeros. So, you would get a number with 1,999,982 zeros, and you would have just as little chance of comprehending that. But wait—just a moment.” The professor scribbled a few numbers on the paper.

“I knew it,” his wife said. “There will be some calculations, after all.”

“I’m already done. Do you know what this number means for our library? Let’s assume that each of our volumes is two centimeters thick and we stand all of them up in a single row—what do you think, how long would the row be?”

He looked around triumphantly, as everyone was silent.

Then Susanne said suddenly: “I know! May I say it?”

“Always. Go for it, Susie!”

“Twice as many centimeters as there are volumes in the library.”

“Bravo, bravo!” everyone exclaimed. “That’ll do perfectly.”

“Yes,” the professor said, “but let’s still look at things more precisely. All of you know that light travels 300,000 kilometers in a second, and so, in a year, about ten billion kilometers, which is the same as a trillion centimeters. So, if a librarian were to rush past our row of books at the speed of light, then he would still need two years to get past only a single trillion volumes. And to travel along the entire library, it would take twice as many years as there are trillions of volumes in the library, which makes, as said before, the number 1 with 1,999,982 zeros. What I’m trying to explain is that we have just as little hope of imagining the number of years it takes light to travel along the library, as we have of imagining the number of volumes itself. And that really shows most clearly that the task of forming for oneself an image of this number is futile, even though the number is *finite*.”

The professor wanted to put away the paper, when Burkel said, “If the ladies will allow me, I’d like to ask one more question. I have the suspicion that you’ve worked out a library for which there would be no room in the whole world.”

“We’ll have the answer shortly,” the professor answered and started to calculate again. Then he said: “If we were to pack up the entire library so that 1,000 volumes came out to a cubic meter, then containing it would require the entire universe up to the furthest visible nebulas, so many times over that the number of packed universes would only have some 60 zeros less than the number with the two million zeros, which indicates our number of volumes. So, the fact remains—we won’t get closer to our enormous number in any manner.”

“You see,” Burkel said. “I was right that it’s inexhaustible.”

“No, it’s not. Simply subtract it from itself and you’ll have ‘zero’. It is finite, it is firmly defined as a concept. There’s only one surprising thing about it: we can write down the number of volumes comprising the apparently infinite amount of all possible literature using only a few digits. However, when we try to integrate these contents into our own experience, to imagine in detail, for example, what it would be like to find a particular volume in our universal library, then we are confronted with precisely that clear shape of our own reason as if something infinite and incomprehensible.”

Burkel nodded seriously and said: “Reason is infinitely larger than understanding.”

“What do you mean with this riddle?” the professor’s wife asked.

“I only mean that we can think correctly of infinitely more than we are capable of knowing through experience. The logical is infinitely more powerful than the sensible.”

“That, precisely, is the sublime,” Wallhausen noted. “The sensible passes away with time, but the logical is independent of all time, is universally valid. Since the logical means nothing other than human thought itself, we have a share, in this timeless good, of the unchanging laws of the divine, of the destiny of the endless power of creation. That is what the foundations of mathematics are based on.”

“Good,” said Burkel, “the laws give us faith in the truth. But we can only use them when we have filled their form with the living matter of experience, i.e., when we have found the volume we need in the library.”

Wallhausen agreed, and his wife said quietly:

“‘For, no human being

Should ever measure himself

Against the gods.

If he raises himself up,

And touches

The stars with the top of his head,

Then the precarious soles of his feet

Will not have anything to stand on,

And the clouds and the winds

Will toy with him.’” [10]

“The great master hits the mark,” the professor said. “But without the logical law, there would be nothing certain to elevate us above the stars and beyond. Only, we must not leave behind the secure ground of experience. We need not search through the universal library for the volume we require, but rather create it ourselves in constant, serious, honest work.”

“Chance plays, reason creates,” Burkel said. “And that’s why you’ll write down tomorrow what you played today, and I’ll get my article to take back with me after all.”

“I can do you that favor,” Wallhausen laughed. “But I’ll tell you right now, your readers will think it’s from one of the superfluous volumes. What about you, Susie, what do you want to do?”

“I want to do something reasonable,” she said solemnly. “I’m going to fill form with matter.”

And she refilled their glasses.

**Notes on the Translator’s Preface**

*Sylvie and Bruno*about whether more knowledge is contained in books or the human mind. After the publication of Lasswitz’s much more extensive account of the universal library, there do not seem to have been any further literary treatments of the topos for several decades. Around 1940, Jorge Luis Borges re-discovered Lasswitz’s story and published his own famous take on the universal library under the title “The Library of Babel.” In subsequent years, the trope went viral in speculative fiction, appearing in Isaac Asimov’s

*Foundation Trilogy*, an episode of

*Star Trek*, Douglas Adams’s

*Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*, Gene Wolf’s series

*The Book of the New Sun*, Terry Pratchett’s

*Discworld*comics, Walter Moer’s

*The City of Dreaming Books*, and Lev Grossman’s

*Magicians*trilogy, among many others. In mathematical fiction, more generally, the story also resonates with treatments of the countably infinite in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “The Circle of Zero,” Margaret St. Clair’s

*Aleph Sub One*, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Arthur Porges’s “The Unwilling Professor,” Neal Stephenson’s

*Cryptonomicon*, and Ian Stewart’s “Hilbert’s Hotel.” [2]. Having studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy, Lasswitz worked as a high school teacher at the Ernestinum, the oldest Gymnasium in Thuringia, in the industrial city of Gotha, Germany. In addition to publishing speculative fiction, he also contributed scholarly articles on mathematical topics to many scientific journals, and even exchanged correspondence with Georg Cantor, one of the founders of set theory. Still, readers should not be too hasty to equate the author with only the mathematics professor in “Die Universalbibliothek”, since the story carefully and playfully presents several contrasting viewpoints. [3]. Borges, Jorge Luis, “The Total Library.”

*The Total Library: Non-Fiction*1922–1986. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 2000, pg. 214. [4]. Ibid, pg. 216.

**Notes on the Translation**

*Reichskursbuch*(Imperial timetables) was a comprehensive collection of schedules for railroads and ship connections, published under that name by the Imperial Post Office starting in 1878. Readers should be careful not to draw any hasty conclusions, since there is no semantic relation in German between transportation “timetables” (

*der Fahrplan*), scholastic “timetables” (

*der Stundenplan*), and mathematical “times tables” (

*das Einmaleins*). [7]. Goethe’s

*Faust*, a version of the early modern legend of an astronomer and necromancer of that name, is arguably the most well-known work in the German canon. [8]. The Thirty Years’ War was a series of wars in Central Europe from 1618–48. Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher was a Prussian general during the Napoleonic War. Dahomey was an African kingdom in present-day Benin, which existed roughly from 1600 to 1900. [9]. Tasked with reciting the opening lines of Goethe’s

*Iphigenia at Taurus*, Susanne mixes up famous lines from three different plays. The first verse, “Heraus in eure Schatten, rege Wipfel,” is indeed the opening line of Goethe’s play. However, the second verse, “Der Not gehorchend, nicht dem eignen Trieb,” is from Friedrich Schiller’s

*The Bride of Messina*, and the third, “Auf diese Bank von Stein will ich mich setzen,” is from Schiller’s

*Wilhelm Tell*. The resulting sentence is syntactically correct but semantically trivial, making it sound absurd. [10]. Mrs. Wallhausen recites the second stanza of Goethe’s poem “Limits of Humanity”: “Denn mit den Göttern / Soll sich nicht messen / Irgend ein Mensch. / Hebt er sich aufwärts, / Und berührt / Mit dem Scheitel die Sterne, / Nirgends haften dann / Die unsicheren Sohlen, / Und mit ihm spielen / Wolken und Winde.”