La biblioteca de Babel


As I started reading Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel," I realized that I've been running across references to this short story for years, although now, typically, I can't put my finger on any specific text to prove my point. It's not surprising, though, that writers would find the central conceit of "La biblioteca" compelling: the narrator of the story, now an old man, describes the historical, political, and religious trajectory of the universe in which he lives: an interminable, possibly infinite library (one of the key philosophical debates in this universe, as in ours, is whether or not the Library has any outer edge) composed of endless identical hexagonal rooms, all full of books. The books are also identical from the outside, but inside contain all possible permutations of all possible ideas and non-ideas, in all possible languages:

De esas premisas incontrovertibles dedujo que la Biblioteca es total y que sus anaqueles registran todas las posibles combinaciones de los veintitantos símbolos ortográficos (número, aunque vastísimo, no infinito) o sea todo lo que es dable expresar: en todos los idiomas. Todo: la historia minuciosa del porvenir, las autobiografías de los arcángelos, el catálogo fiel de la Biblioteca, miles y miles de catálogos falsos, la demostración de la falacia de esos catálogos, la demonstración de la falacia del catálogo verdadero...

[From these incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is all-encompassing, and that its shelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-some orthographic symbols (a number which, although vast, is not infinite), in other words everything it is possible to express, in all languages. Everything: the meticulous history of the future, autobiographies of the archangels, the catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of these catalogs, the proof of the falsity of the true catalog...]

Yet again I am in love with Borges's incredible clever playfulness here. He's excellent at taking an idea (say, the meta notion that the library would contain its own catalog) and running with it to delightful heights: not only that it would also contain huge numbers of wrong catalogs, or that one could also find the proof of the wrongness of those catalogs, but that there would also exist the false proof of the falsity of the true catalog. Brilliant stuff. I hope he had as much fun writing this stuff as I have reading it; it seems as though the exercise of such a brain would be a never-ending delight.

Not that the story itself depicts unmitigated joy. On the contrary, the supposed completeness of the Library becomes a tremendous burden for its inhabitants. The knowledge that all possible thoughts have already been expressed, all possible combinations of ideas already extant, lead many people into despondency; the narrator relates that the suicide rate rises every year. Not only is it impossible to write anything new, to add to the body of writing already ensconced in the Library, but since the books in the Library are either not organized in any particular order, or organized in an order that the inhabitants don't understand, there's no way to locate a particular book one might be searching for. To know simultaneously that every possible book exists, and yet that it's extremely unlikely to happen upon any particular one, drives many Library inhabitants mad:

En aquel tiempo se habló mucho de las Vindicaciones: libros de apología y de profecía, que para siempre vindicaban los actos de cada hombre del universo y guardaban arcanos prodigiosos para su porvenir. Miles de codiciosos abandonaron el dulce hexágono natal y se lanzaron escaleras arriba, urgidos por el vano propósito de encontrar su Vindicación. Esos peregrinos disputaban en los corredores estrechos, proferían oscuras maldiciones, se estrangulaban en las escaleras divinas, arrojaban los libros engañosos al fondo de los túneles, morían despeñados por los hombres de regiones remotas.

[At that time there was much talk of the Vindications: books of of apology and prophecy that vindicated for all time the acts of each man in the universe, and harbored profound secrets for his future. Thousands of covetous people abandoned the sweet hexagons of their birth and launched themselves up stairs, urged on by the vain prospect of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims fought in the narrow corridors, hurled dark curses, strangled each other on the divine staircases, threw deceitful books to the bottoms of the shafts, were killed by men in remote areas.

Surely some of the violence and desperation these wanderers display comes from the knowledge that, although their true Vindications may exist (however unlikely they are to actually find them in a library of essentially identical volumes), they are equally likely to come across a FALSE version of their own Vindication, or a version that is partially true and partially false, or a book that does the opposite of the one they're looking for, condemning all the actions they've ever taken instead of excusing them. In an atmosphere in which any possible combination of ideas, words and letters is available, Borges seems to argue, actual meaning is reduced to almost nothing: in order to perceive meaning, our options must be limited. The presence of something in a book in the Library means nothing about whether it's true or false—if, indeed, "true" and "false" even retain any meaning in such an environment. The blind quest of the Vindication seekers tries to overlook the impossibility of recognizing the truth of their actual Vindications, even if they were so lucky as to find them, in the midst of so many proofs and counter-proofs. There is even, Borges goes on, the difficulty of never being sure we are speaking the same language, with all permutations of possible languages represented:

Un número n de languajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubiquo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

[A number n of possible languages use the same vocaulary; in some, the signifier library corresponds to the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting network of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or some other thing, and the seven words of the definition have another meaning. You, reader, are you sure of understanding my language?]

I continue to have a rollicking good time with Borges, despite finding this story a bit more challenging than "Pierre Menard." More than anything, I'm in awe of the man's mental agility and delight in ideas—the two things that prevented the darkness of this story from getting to me in the slightest.


  • The Vindications bit was especially good. It's reminiscent of the Christians killing everyone on their way to the Crusades, or the pro-lifers killing doctors in order to demonstrate their support of life. So many of his sentences are just dripping in rich metaphors like this. The possibility of meanings is endless. Yes! Sort of like an infinite library....

  • Emily, you make a wonderful point about how Borges' imagination and style help to offset some of the melancholy themes contained within "The Library of Babel." I find that even when I don't connect with Borges in the same way I did with "Pierre Menard," there's still so much to think about on the imagination front. Can't remember whether "El libro de arena" ("The Book of Sand") is in your Ficciones or not, but you and anybody else into the "Library of Babel" style hijinks should check it out b/c in true meta fashion Borges himself seems to "predict" the arrival of the latter story in "The Library of Babel"'s final footnote!

  • Jill: I agree; so many opportunities for allegorical/historical interpretation! (The two you mention are right on, IMO.) But also sort of a delightful fable just on the surface/in the abstract. ¡Me gusta!

    Richard: "El libro de arena" isn't part of my book, but I'll be on the lookout for it! That seems like just the kind of thinky joke our Mr. Borges would be into. :-)

  • I don't know if I ever noticed this before, but it seems that most people in this story spend their life devoted to Theory. They start with a concept of the library, discover that the concept implies certain books, and spend their lives looking for them. Just as an example, no one actually knows, or could know, that the library is actually infinite (as opposed to, say inconceivably large). It's all a Theory.

    That final, infinte book, the book of sand, or a version of it, makes a guest appearance at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

  • And that meaning is not mutable either through social or historical circumstance as some of us were discussing in relation to a comparison with the internet. Everything written versus everything written by participants in a visible evolution.

    Also did not feel the negative in this despite the subject as the playfulness draws one away. The spiraling questions pull you in as if you feel that there is an answer to be found within the text just as those searching for certain books must to a point feel hopefulness. Tricky, teasing Borges! Great post!

  • I love your interpretation, even though mine is sort of the complete opposite. I saw the very completeness of the Library as something optimistic - the idea that the truth is definitely out there, and written on a physical object in symbols we can understand. But I totally see your point as well. I guess it's an either/or situation.

  • Amateur Reader: Right, that's such an interesting point: we don't see anyone in this story who is suspending theoretical conclusions until they gather evidence, or, even more radically, people who are going along the best they can within their immediate surroundings, without being informed by some kind of meta-narrative. (For example, I might expect some kind of "nature-lover" analogue who would forego the books entirely and just appreciate the never-ending symmetry of the Library building itself - or artist types who would make book sculptures out of those books seemingly lacking in other types of meaning.) But maybe, since the narrator himself is a seeker type, he doesn't focus on those who are differently oriented? Or maybe such people would just exist outside of the allegorical points Borges is trying to make...

  • Frances: Right, that's a really interesting point & does seem to be the direction the Library inhabitants take their situation. Though it seems like that wouldn't NECESSARILY be the case - a person could, after all, just choose a book at random that seems to contain gibberish, and decide for herself creatively what it "means" - create a language in her own mind whose words correspond with her chosen meaning on the pre-written pages, or just write a supposed "translation" into the language she speaks. But the Library inhabitants seem kind of paralyzed by the idea that if they did this, the resulting book would already exist elsewhere in the Library. My instinct is "so what?" even as I understand how that would be difficult knowledge to have hanging over one's head.

    EL Fay: Yes, it's interesting how our interpretations differ! I can see yours as well. Guess it just goes to underline the difficulty of locating "truth" even if everyone's working from the same text!

  • I found this a LOT more challenging than Pierre Menard, because of the tremendous amount of physical and spiritual and mental space it encapsulates. The universe, mankind, and the depths of thought throughout centuries. I feel in the midway point in between yours and EL Fay's views. Loving, again, everyone's views because I don't think I am able to see it so widely without you all.

  • Friend of mine used to call Borges "brain candy." Maybe the salty licorice? Something with a tang.

  • You are making me really want to read Borges right now. If only I didn't have to work and could curl up and lose myself, I'd be so there right now.

  • Claire: The group read does tend to add so much when we all have such different perspectives, doesn't it? I'm loving that, too. :-) Interesting that you found this story more difficult - I was thinking primarily from a language standpoint (it was harder for me to understand the Spanish), but having read all the different responses, the ideas might be more challenging as well.

    Jenny: Mmmm, brain candy. :-) Yeah, I'm getting a total kick out of him.

    Stefanie: I wish you could! But I suppose little things like "school" are pretty important too. :-P

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography