a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek] (1901)
Kurd Lasswitz
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This early "science fiction" story explores the notion of a library containing every possible five hundred page book and an English translation appears in the classic mathematical fiction collection Fantasia Mathematica. It may have been an inspiration for the similar but more fantastical work The Library of Babel written by Borges.

I did not originally include an entry for this story in my database because it is more of an essay than a work of fiction. Moreover, I considered the mathematics to be too elementary. (In one sense, the mathematical content is just the computation of the number of works in the library, simple combinatorics.) However, prompted by an e-mail from author and anthologist Charles Waugh, I reread it, learned more about its history and have reconsidered.

In addition to considering entertaining non-mathematical consequences of the library (such as the fact that the library contains a volume which is its own catalog, but also many volumes which are frustratingly incorrect catalogs and no obvious way to distinguish them) the story rather explicitly explores the boundary between the finite and infinite.

(quoted from The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek])

"I thought all along that it was infinite," said Burkel.

"No, that's just the point. The figure is not infinite, it is a finite figure. The mathematics of it are flawless. What is surprising is that we can write down on a very small piece of paper the number of volumes comprising all possible literature, something which at first glance seems to be infinite. But if we then try to visualize it—for example, try to find a specific volume — we realize that we cannot grasp what is otherwise a very clear and logical thought that we evolved ourselves."

So, let me thank Dr. Waugh for reminding me of it and encourage others to read it. Especially since it can now be "borrowed" for free from the Internet Archive (another interesting form of library that would years ago have seemed like science fiction), you have no excuse not to!

Contributed by Allan Goldberg

The first unabridged translation (with annotations by the translator) of Kurd Lasswitz's "The Universal Library" is found and freely available in Mithila Review # 9.

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

Borges’ “The Library of Babel” was based on Kurd Lassiwitz’s “The Universal Library”, as Borges explicitly acknowledged in his 1939 essay, “The Total Library”. In fact, Borges traces the idea of a complete library all the way back to the cosmogony of Leucippus, as quoted by Aristotle in his book, “Metaphysics”. Borges mentions that the idea of a universal library was, in more recent times, alluded to, or “invented by” the German writer, Gustav Fechner, and first elaborated upon by Kurd Lasswitz. Interestingly, Lasswitz, in his story, “When the Devil Took the Professor”, has one of the characters reference Fechner...

More information about this work can be found at another page on this Website.
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte] by Kurd Lasswitz
  2. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  3. The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke
  4. Hilbert's Hotel by Ian Stewart
  5. Infinities by John Barrow
  6. Dude, can you count? by Christian Constanda
  7. Scandal in the Fourth Dimension by Amelia Reynolds Long (as "A.R. Long")
  8. Flower Arrangement by Rosel George Brown
  9. The Snowball Effect by Katherine Maclean
  10. The Higher Mathematics by Martin C. Wodehouse
Ratings for The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek]:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.33/5 (3 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction, Didactic,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)