Readalong – Review of “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Library of Babel” is a short story by Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges first published in 1942 and modified in 1956. For my reading, I used the English translation of Ficciones (U.S.: Grove Press, 1962), a collection of stories by Borges edited by Anthony Kerrigan and with the translation of “The Library of Babel” also by Kerrigan.

What the Story is About

In the story, Borges describes the universe in terms of an infinite library constructed in a series of hexagons in which books contain every possible combination of letters, spaces and punctuation marks. He writes:

“Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or of malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatic volumes, of indefatigable ladders for the voyager, and of privies for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”

Because of the inclusive nature of the library with its infinite possibilities, it is inevitable that some volumes contain what seems to be gibberish:

“It is pointless to observe that the best book in the numerous hexagons under my administration is entitled Combed Clap of Thunder; or that another is called The Plaster Cramp; and still another Axaxaxas Mlö.”

Some go crazy from despair over trying to understand and catalog the books of the library. Others take a leap of faith:

“I know of districts where the youth prostrate themselves before books and barbarously kiss the pages, though they do not know how to make out a single letter.”

He ends by observing:

“It is not illogical, I say, to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited, postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairs and hexagons could inconceivably cease – a manifest absurdity. Those who imagined it to be limitless forget that the possible number of books is limited. I dare insinuate the following solution to this ancient problem: The Library is limitless and periodic. If an eternal voyager were to traverse it in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder (which, repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself). My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope.”

Jorge Luis Borges and The Library of Babel

What does it all mean?

In 1967, Borges told the French critic Georges Charbonnier that he had two ideas in mind when writing “The Library of Babel.” The first was an exploration of the idea that since the number of words in any given language is finite, their possible combinations — i.e., books — are finite also, and that therefore, in the near future, writers will no longer ask, “What book shall I write?” but, “Which book shall I write?” Thus, Borges is riffing on a mental mind game, or “thought experiment.”

Borges added that beyond this abstract idea, he was also expressing the angst of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. In other words, the limited knowledge of this infinite library by the narrator reflects Borges’s own uncertainty about Life, the Universe, and Everything. His fondest hope, as he says at the end, is that there is an order to it that might be discovered if there could be an “eternal voyager.”


Variations Ad Infinitum

Ironically, the spinoffs from this short story seem as infinite as Borges’ library. The story has spawned books, pictures, and endless analogies to the Internet. Some of the better known examples include Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (featuring a monk named Jorge of Burgos who heads a great labyrinthine library in a monastery); The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by Mathematics Professor William Goldbloom Bloch, which analyzes the mathematical ideas embedded within the author’s story–from combinatorics to information theory; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett (in which Dennett employs an intellectual model he calls “the Library of Mendel”); and many articles having titles similar to: “Is Google Building a Library of Babel?” by Anne O’Sullivan (available on the Internet, here).

One reason the story has begotten so many progeny is the incredible richness in meanings and allusions of every sentence. I note one sentence though, that I have not seen oft quoted or replicated, but I enjoyed it so much I think I intend to use it. After reading this story, I will forever say, instead of “I’m going to the bathroom,” “I’m off to satisfy my fecal necessities.”

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21 Responses to Readalong – Review of “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

  1. Julie P. says:

    Wow! You have one smart book club. And to think, I was happy that we just read CUTTING FOR STONE!

  2. Richard says:

    Nice job explaining the background and some of Borges’ stated reasons for writing the text, Jill. Too bad I kind of prefer reading what Borges had to say about the story rather than reading the story itself, but you can’t have everything! On that goofy line about going to the bathroom you mention near the end of your post, I’m afraid that that’s mostly the result of an awkward translation: Borges himself only speaks about a room where one could “satisfacer las necesidades finales” (“relieve oneself”), a euphemism less subtle but way less funny than in the translation at hand!

    • Richard says:

      I meant to say that Borges’ euphemism is more subtle, of course, Jill. Back to my English class!

    • Actually it sounds funnier in the original, with its opportunities for double entendres. But either way, it was sort of odd of him to include it!

      • l. turco says:

        actually, i don’t know that it was odd of him. i think he intended to demonstrate the “ungodliness” of men, or the very mortal characteristics of us mortals. we are not the library. “Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or of malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant appointments—its bookshelves, its enigmatic books, its indefatigable staircases for the traveler, and its water closets for the seated librarian—can only be the handiwork of a god.”

        • Tiffany says:

          Actually, the books can be taken as a reference to humans themselves and even their morality. There is a quote in the book about the difficulties of man “finding his own novel”. So. .. in a way we can interpolate that Borges meant for humans themselves to be represented in the book as the books and also as the librarians who did not always take care of it properly, though it “was the work of a god”. AKA men do not take care of themselves (or the earth, as this also may be insinuated.) nevertheless, the books are likely representations of humans themselves in an abstract form, though they may also be interpreted to mean many other things.

    • “necesidades finales” is from the second edition Borges published in 1944 – the 1941 edition had the phrase “necesidades fecales,” and for some reason all the translators but Hurley follow the first edition in this instance.

  3. Steph says:

    I’ve tried reading Borges before, and admit that I haven’t had much luck. I guess I’m one of those readers whose never been able to take a leap of faith! 😉

  4. Aarti says:

    I’ve never tried Borges before but he seems to be the abstract art/modern art version of a writer! Thinks outside the hexagonal box, doesn’t he? Interesting premise!

  5. Sandy says:

    One of these days, when I plow through all of the books I “have” to read, I am going to participate in a smart read-along. Smart as in a book that will stretch my little brain cells, which I think this one would. I do want to try, just to see if I can handle it. At least with a read-along, I would have others to splain things to me!

  6. EL Fay says:

    Ah, so I’m not the first person to compare the Library to the Internet. I thought I was being original!

    “What book shall I write” vs. “Which book shall I write” – that just about sums it up. I’ve often wondered how humans have been able to compose so many different melodies out of a very small number of notes, and what will happen once we run out of melodies. I guess we could go all Stravinsky and write atonal stuff, but that’s never had mass appeal.

    • Oh, if you haven’t read The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers, you might love it! It’s one of my favorite books, and it really has to do with how many different melodies can come from just a few notes (as well as all the diversity of life from just four nucleotides.

  7. Emily says:

    Thanks for identifying some of the Library of Babel spinoffs, Jill – I know I’ve come across MANY in my reading career (not knowing specifically until now what they referred to), but once I was actually reading the story I couldn’t think of any! I can really understand the appeal of portraying the Library in visual form – despite all the angst and existential drama that unfolds in the course of the story, there’s something so appealing to a reader about a universe composed of books… 🙂

  8. Margot says:

    Somewhere in the middle of reading the quotes I was thinking that maybe this was some librarian’s nightmare? I’d have to take this book in very slow reading bites. I was glad for your explanation.

  9. Jenners says:

    I don’t think I’m smart enough to read a book like this … I’ll learn about it from you. Though that quote is fantastic!!!

  10. Janel says:

    Thanks for introducing me to this story! I have always been fascinated by libraries, so what can be better than a story about a library?

  11. Frances says:

    The internet thing is what struck me too as I commented on Eileen’s post just a little while ago. Love that thought that the internet id constantly being written by its users juxtaposed against a library in which everything possible has been written. Curiously, there are many parallels between this story and the fantasy novel, Snow Crash, that I am reading now.

  12. Pingback: The Library of Babel « what we have here is a failure to communicate

  13. I’m not sure about this whole infinite/finite thing…but I love the cover and that drawing.

  14. nicole says:

    I love that idea of “which book shall I write?” And very helpful background information on some of the literary connections. There are so many!

  15. It is an interesting picture on the cover page. But, the book itself seems to be interesting as well.

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