The Moby-Dick variations

Adventures in the Branch Library of Babel

Consider Moby-Dick, a very famous novel, known briefly as The Whale.

Consider also Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” which posits a library containing all possible novels—indeed, all possible books, including nonsensical ones.

Now consider Shaenon K. Garrity’s delightful homage, “Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel.” This fictional institution (located in Dublin, Ohio) holds a smaller collection than Borges’ library: merely all possible versions of Moby-Dick.

We had both subtly and spectacularly misprinted Moby-Dicks, Moby-Dicks riddled with misspellings and bad punctuation, Moby-Dicks where words disappear or run backward. I personally found eight copies with alternate endings. Three were gibberish and one was just the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, but the others weren’t bad. We had two Moby-Dicks with sex scenes (Queequeg/Ishmael, Queequeg/Ahab).

Garrity’s story is wonderful (if you go read it now and never return, this tab will still have served a noble purpose) and it has so much nerdy fun cavorting around this question of what makes a particular novel a particular novel… but it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question.

This is perhaps a wise choice.

We are not so wise.

Where does one novel end and another one begin?

One day not too long ago, I was thinking about this as I considered what sort of message to send next to my little email list.

I decided to do a little research. Gather just a bit of data.

My list is comprised of a few thousand readers, the curious kind. Obviously, this is not a scientific sample… but to plumb the depths of a Branch Library of Babel, a scientific sample is the last thing you want.

I asked these readers to consider several variations of Moby-Dick like the ones in Garrity’s story. I’ll present those variations here so you can quickly test your own intuition. Here’s what I wrote to the list:

Broadly, would it be fair to call this new text by the same title? If you read the original, and a friend read the transformation, would you feel that you’d both read the same book?

With that in mind, imagine that we took the text of Moby-Dick and…

translated it into German.

replaced every adjective with a close synonym, e.g. “white” → “pale.”

replaced every adjective with a random alternative, e.g. “white” → “paisley,” or maybe “pedantic.”

changed the ending, e.g. Ahab lives!

added a sex scene, e.g. Queequeg/Ishmael.

burned all extant copies, then rewrote it from memory. We’ll take turns at the keyboard. We’ll do our best.

The whale awaits your judgment.
CC-licensed photo from David Gilford:

Here’s what I heard back.

What if we translated Moby-Dick into German? Out of 956 respondents, 91% agreed this is the same novel. This feels like firm ground (and one imagines the remaining 9% to be sticklers indeed).

What if we replaced every adjective with a close synonym? 37% were willing to call this Moby-Dick. And if that replacement wasn’t a synonym but instead a random alternative? Only 13% dubbed that Moby-Dick.

What if we changed the ending? Maybe not surprisingly, only 14% were willing to call that Moby-Dick.

But we were to add a sex scene instead, then the proportion leaps, and a generous 31% said sure, that’s Moby-Dick.

That’s interesting, but here’s the one that blows my mind: If we were to burn all extant copies of Moby-Dick and then rewrite the story from memory… 33% of respondents told me that would be the same novel!

I just couldn’t square that response with the others. You’re telling me that if I change the adjectives, it’s not the same novel, but if I open a blank Word document and start typing from memory, it is?

Upon consideration, what I get from these responses is an intuition of faithfulness. Translation is assumed to be faithful, whereas the substitution of adjectives is clearly a game. Likewise, when we rewrite the book from memory, we are assumed to be doing so faithfully, to the best of our paltry ability. (“I… can’t remember the whaling chapters. I never actually read them. I’m sorry. I’M SORRY!”) Whereas, if we change the ending, we are clearly inflicting something on the story.

Faithfulness to what, though?

I think Shaenon K. Garrity has the answer.

I think we, as readers, are able to sense the shape of a particular Branch Library of Babel built around a particular story, with its particular set of images and themes. Even though this Branch Library is an abstract thing, to say the least, I think we, as readers, can trace its perimeter with surprising accuracy. Collectively—and maybe only collectively—we can determine which elements a work of fiction depends upon, and which it doesn’t.

It makes me think of that indirect sort of astronomy, by which we infer the presence of an invisible mass by looking closely at a wobbling star. I think we are seeing a faint wobble when we learn that adding a sex scene is less of an injury to Moby-Dick’s Moby-Dick-ness than changing the ending. We are learning that Moby-Dick’s ending matters, a lot. Conversely, there are other stories for which the ending might feel arbitrary, even superfluous, but for which an added sex scene would be transformative indeed. (Winnie the Pooh, perhaps?)

This isn’t just intellectual play. I mean… it’s mostly intellectual play. But, having written and revised and published a novel myself, this question of where it begins and ends has become more concrete, particularly now that the book has been translated into about twenty languages. Usually, foreign publishers send over two or three copies. I look at these other editions…

The original American English edition flanked by its Hebrew and Norwegian cousins

…and realize that, somehow, these two statements are simultaneously true:

  1. This is the same novel.
  2. Every single word has been changed.

Likewise: In the earliest draft of Penumbra, there was this whole weird thing about Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King, a real-life historical figure. He and his lost library (!) were at the core of that story, yet they are nowhere in the published novel. Was that variation, printed on cheap paper and shared with early readers, not actually Penumbra? Where is the Raven King now?

Writing a novel, it is possible to become aware of yourself as an explorer in a new Branch Library of Babel, one built not around Moby-Dick but instead some other story—the one you’re writing. In this awareness, you are not so much composing as spelunking: feeling your way toward the one particular incarnation of the story that you will carry back out into the light, into the world, into bookstores and libraries.

The other variations remain behind, but—I really believe this, and I think my little survey backs it up—readers can still sense them. When we read a novel, we enjoy not only a particular text but somehow the suggestion of a whole Branch Library. And sometimes, if a novel is successful, that becomes a place where others want to go exploring: with translation and adaptation, by remixing and rebooting. All of these undertakings constitute a return journey, and there are always more variations waiting in the Branch Library.

To my translators, I ought to say: “Suit up. Bring a sandwich. Carry a taser. The Raven King is in there somewhere.”

Back in Garrity’s original Branch Library of Babel, though, the real question is this: If you search and search… will you ever find Emoji Dick?

Thanks to my email list subscribers for generous feedback on an early articulation of this idea, and of course, for considering the Moby-Dick variations.