“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.”
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.”