Jorge Luis Borges is an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, and dramatist who wrote in Spanish; often considered to be one of the greatest figures of Spanish literature, as well as one of the most important authors in the Western literary tradition. Primarily known for his short stories, Borges explores a variety of themes in his works, like infinity, mystery, meaning, dreams, labyrinths, etc. His works have been a key influence on the development of genres like philosophical literature, magic realism, and fantasy. This short story, “The Library of Babel” was originally published in his 1941 collection known as The Garden of Forking Paths.
The Library of Babel | Summary
“The Library of Babel” is one of those unusual literary texts that does not yield itself well to a summary, being more about conceptions, hypotheses, metaphors, and epiphanies than a coherent and linear plot structure. The story, at its crux, explore the Library of Babel, an infinite Library that is both a metaphor for the universe, as well as the universe itself in the context of the story, and the description of this ‘infinite’ Library and numerous understandings and epiphanies about the nature of this Library.
The story opens with an epigraph from Robert Burton’s 1621 book on the nature of depression or melancholy, The Anatomy of Melancholy – “By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters ….”. The first-person omniscient narrator begins by describing the physical structure of the universe “which others call the Library”, consisting of an infinite number of hexagonal galleries. These galleries all have a ventilation shaft in the middle surrounded by a low railing. A person standing inside any of the hexagons can see all the hexagons above and below, infinitely. All the hexagons are identical with twenty bookshelves on four of the six sides of the hexagon, with five shelves on each side. The bookshelves span from the entire length of the floor to the ceiling and are the height of an average librarian. One of the two empty sides of the hexagon opens into a vestibule that in turn opens into another gallery, identical to all other galleries. We are told that on the left and the right side of the vestibules are tiny compartments, one for sleeping and the other for fulfilling physical necessities. There is also a mirror in every vestibule, and the vestibules are lighted by ‘certain spherical fruits’ called bulbs.
The narrator tells us that when he was younger, he searched for a book that serves as a catalog for all the catalogs in the Library. Now, however, the old narrator knows that such an attempt is futile. As he dies, his body will be thrown over the railing, traveling down eternally and decomposing in and by the air itself. While Idealists assert that a hexagon is the only possible or conceivable shape for this Library, Mystics claim that they have seen a circular chamber in this Library with an enormous book that has a continuous, circular spine. However, the credibility of this latter view is questionable, as this book would necessarily be God Himself. Presently, the common consensus is that ‘The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.’
Each wall inside the Library has five bookshelves, and each shelf has thirty-two books, each having 410 pages, with each page having forty lines with eighty letters in each line.
The title on the cover of the book does not necessarily have any relation to the contents of the book. At this point, the narrator states some axioms regarding the Library. The first of these is the fact that the Library has existed ab aeternitate i.e., for eternity, a truth that is indisputable according to the narrator and is certainly the work of God. The second axiom is that there are twenty-two orthographic or grammatical symbols that symbolize the letters in the alphabet, and twenty-five natural symbols in total, including the comma, the period, and the space. Also, the majority of the books and even the majority of the parts of individual books make no rational or conceivable sense, and it is a futile and ‘superstitious’ habit of some librarians who try to make sense of or understand everything rationally. Also, the twenty-five natural symbols are completely random/coincidental and have no essential connection with sound or meaning. It has often been believed that books that appear nonsensical must have been composed in an unknown language. The narrator contests this by saying books that, for example, contain just three letters or symbols repeated throughout cannot make sense in any kind of language, primitive or otherwise.
Once such a puzzling book with two pages of the same line being repeated over and over was found. While some travelers thought it was in Yiddish, while others thought it was Portuguese. While the language has now been determined as “the Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with inflections from classical Arabic”, the book contains “the rudiments of combinatory analysis, illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations.” These findings led to the discovery of the universal law of the Library –
“all books, however different from one another they might be, consist of identical elements: the space, the period, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet”.
Moreover, there are no two identical books and the Library consists of all possible combinations of the twenty-five symbols, being perfect or complete.
The announcement of the discovery that the Library contains all possible books was one of delight, peopling hoping to find the solution to all their problems within the Library. A lot of people began searching for the book of Vindications which justifies the sins of all men and prophesize their futures. However, given the infinitude of the Library, the possibility of a person finding his Book of Vindications is less than zero, and the futility of the search was soon realized.
The fundamental mysteries of mankind are the origin of the Library and time. Official searchers known as Inquisitors have searched for the relevant books for centuries, to no avail. The realization of the futility of searching for such answers led to a wave of depression, with one group suggesting that mankind should try shuffling multiple combinations of the twenty-five letters, till one of them coincidentally comes up with the answers. This mirrors Borel’s dactylographic monkey theorem which states that if a group of monkeys is given some typewriters and left there for eternity, they would eventually type out all of Shakespeare’s works. Other groups wanted to eliminate all unnecessary books, and some of them even caused the destruction of a huge quantity of the Library’s resources, but given the infinitude of the Library, their actions barely made any conceivable difference to the knowledge contained within. There have also been attempts to find the Crimson Hexagon – a chamber with books that are “smaller than natural books, books omnipotent, illustrated, and magical”.
There have also been attempts to look for a messiah-like “Book-Man”, a librarian who has read the book that has complete explanations of all other books in the Library, making him analogous to God himself. There have been religions worshipping such a librarian. The narrator hopes that such a man has existed somewhere, someday, having gained the infinitude of knowledge contained in that book. Moreover, while the Library contains books that are considered almost completely non-sensical or absurd by some, these absences of sense or rationality are only language-specific, and there must be some language in the Library in which words that appear nonsensical in most other languages mean something, therefore giving the Library a totality or perfection of meaning.
The concluding epiphanies of the narrator are that while humanity is finite, and will eventually become extinct, the Library will endure eternally. He also asserts that while the Library, mirroring the universe, is infinite, the number of books is not. “The Library is unlimited but periodic”, meaning that if a traveler travels across an indefinite measure of distance or time, he will find the disorder (or the order) of the Library repeating itself. The people believing that all books are random/meaningless bear a nihilistic tendency, which the author/narrator opposes.
The Library of Babel | Analysis
The story raises questions about the nature of the universe, meaning, reason, infinity, etc., taking up crucial philosophical issues and addressing them. The narrative voice is extremely interesting, as it is a first-person narrator who appears omniscient but is limited, not knowing the answer to several questions raised in the story, like the Book-Man, or the Vindications. The Library serves as a metaphor for the universe, and also for knowledge itself, while the twenty-five symbols mirror the alphabet in a language. One should note that, despite Borges’ conceptualization of all languages having been made up of the same twenty-five symbols, the same is not true for human languages, which, more often than not, have different alphabets, as well as differences in their total number.
The infinity of books in the Library is also paradoxical, as there are a finite number of possible combinations of twenty-five symbols, especially when they all have identical structures. The narrator’s concluding observation regarding the cyclical or periodic nature of the Library appears to be more accurate. The randomness of the symbols and the meaning/sound they denote is also interesting, mirroring Saussure’s understanding of the relationship between the Signifier and the Signified, which has no inherent logical or semantic connection. This is also a metatextual take on the nature of language, and, essentially, all literature. The idea that the Library is a sphere whose center is any hexagon, with an unattainable circumference, also mirrors the hypotheses of physicists and astrophysicists regarding the size and shape of the universe. The theory of unique combinations of the twenty-five symbols also mimics the nature of DNA and that of genetic variation. The structure of the Library where one hexagon leads to all others, extremely similar but not completely identical in the contents of the books, also explains genetic mutation and Evolution.
The story also comments on the nature of various sections and groups of human society. The Mystics in the story appear to be similar to seers and religious leaders, while Inquisitors mimic scientists. The people intent on destroying all books that do not lead to the answer to who is God/who created the Library/who is the Book-Man etc are strikingly similar to religious extremists, while the central question of mankind regarding the origin of the Library also mirrors the question behind all religions and sciences – who/what created the universe?
While the narrator is naturally unable to provide definite answers to the questions raised, his attempt to accept the finitude of knowledge and understanding, as well as his epiphanies on the infinitude of a cyclical/periodic universe with a finite number of components, is close to current scientific and philosophical understanding.
The Library of Babel | Themes
The Nature of the Universe – The Library is a metaphor for the Universe, and the books for all knowledge contained within. Hence the story tries to ascertain its reality and nature as its central concern.
Language – Language, its components, varieties, and its relationship with meaning is also one of the primary thematic concerns that the story explores.