Some Omissions in the Universal Library: Kurd Lasswitz and the Emergence of Science Fiction

Erik Born


This article examines the integral relation between form and content in Kurd Lasswitz’s “Die Universalbibliothek” (1904), one of the seminal treatments of the universal library topos and a direct inspiration for Borges’s “Library of Babel.” In Lasswitz’s concise thought experiment, a mathematical demonstration presents the exact number of volumes contained in a universal library, the amount of space they would occupy, and the time required to travel from one end of the library to the book. At the same time, a creative literary frame narrative undermines this seemingly utopian project, revealing the dream of producing a universal library to be a nightmare for all those involved in its reception. Reading across Lasswitz’s scientific and literary output, the aim of this article is to draw attention not only to the story’s omission from the global tradition of science fiction, but also to the unavoidable omissions involved in any universal library project. (EB)

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