‘The Library of Babel’ is a 1941 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story brings together a number of trademark Borgesian ideas, such as the infinite, and the paradoxical nature of the world. But what does ‘The Library of Babel’ mean? And what is the paradox at the heart of this intriguing story?
You can read ‘The Library of Babel’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Library of Babel’: summary
In this story, Borges’ narrator describes the universe as a vast and virtually infinite library, comprising a great number of hexagonal rooms, with various floating staircases and long galleries, containing a huge number of books. These books comprise every possible permutation or combination of 25 symbols: 22 letters, the comma and full stop, and the space. All the books are exactly 410 pages long, and every single one is different from all the rest.
Borges’ narrator tells us that the library exists ab aeterno, i.e., since the days of earliest antiquity. It could only have been created by a god. Although the content of many of the books proved indecipherable for a long while, people were able to decode the languages used in some of the books.
Nevertheless, the library is not technically ‘infinite’, because the number of books does have an end. Although the number of different combinations of 25 different characters, over 410 pages of text, is monumentally vast, it is not infinite: just a very large number.
Among all these books, somewhere, are the ‘Vindications’: books which excuse away every sin man has committed, and offer keys for his future. However, the chances of finding the relevant Vindications is said to be zero, given the magnitude of the library. So, most of the books are useless because they are incomprehensible to the librarians who study them.
To make this task easier, some librarians attempted to remove the books they perceived as useless or irrelevant. But this was futile, because there were always hundreds of thousands of near-identical copies of any one book (different from the discarded book by just one character here or there), and the library was so vast that any human attempt to cull the number would produce virtually no effect on the library’s vast size. The narrator concludes by asserting that the Library of Babel is infinite and cyclical.
‘The Library of Babel’: analysis
A key trope in many of Borges’ short stories is the paradox. Another is Borges’ preoccupation with the idea of the infinite. In ‘The Library of Babel’, these two recurring themes are united through the library itself, which, paradoxically, is both infinite and not infinite. How can this be?
The key lies in the idea of the library itself. People often browse in libraries, rather than systematically working through one book at a time and reading them in a particular order. A researcher might read a page of one book in the library, then a page of another, then two pages of a third, flitting from book to book in a truly infinite journey through the vast numbers of tomes contained in the Library of Babel. As Borges’ narrator states towards the end of the story, with his example of the cataloguer, this vast number of books can be read in an even vaster number of combinations.
The other key to the story lies in the opening words, which conflate ‘the universe’ and ‘the Library’, using them interchangeably. The universe, according to early twentieth-century cosmology, was expanding, but also infinite; it was, in the words of William Empson from one of his poems written in the late 1920s, ‘finite though unbounded’.
The same is true of the Library of Babel, which is the universe in Borges’ story. The 25 characters which make up the writings in all of the library’s books are described as ‘elements’ in many translations of Borges’ original (it’s fitting, and something the multilingual Borges would doubtless have appreciated, that we English-speakers read a story about ‘Babel’ that’s a translation of its Spanish original). Of course, ‘elements’ is also the name we give to the chemical constituents of everything in the universe: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and so on.
So, the Library of Babel is a metaphor for the universe – or, indeed, in Borges’ fictional world, it is the universe. Is Borges suggesting that the world around us is like a vast library, which we are trying to decipher? Certainly the natural world is full of ‘codes’ which we need to study to make sense of: think of DNA (whose long and complex code is often discussed using metaphors involving the vast books that would be required to ‘write out’ the DNA sequence of an organism). Occasionally, as with the librarian who manages to decipher several pages of one of the library’s books and crack the code, working out that the book is written in a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani. But for the most part, our chances of getting anywhere in our quest to ‘read’ and understand the world is, or is very close to, zero.
It is often said that if monkeys were given typewriters and an infinite amount of time, they would eventually write the complete works of Shakespeare, just because all of the words of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, in order, would be one of the countless sequences of letters they would bash out throughout eternity. Indeed, Borges’ own story, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, may be regarded as a variation on this idea: in Borges’ tale, the fictional Menard takes it upon himself to write the whole of Don Quixote, word for word, not by copying Cervantes’ original but by immersing himself in the right training and then writing, as if for the first time, the exact same words that Cervantes wrote in the exact same order.
Against such a conception of futility, however, is Isaac Newton’s famous metaphor concerning how little we humans understand of the world we inhabit: ‘I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’ ‘The Library of Babel’, in the last analysis, can be described as a story that exposes the absurd futility of humanity’s attempt to understand everything, when there is so much to comprehend – an almost infinite amount, in fact.
Image: by Adolf Hoffmeister, via Wikimedia Commons.