Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 15, 2010

The Library of Babel

Collected Fictionsfrom the collection The Garden of Forking Paths
contained within Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley

‘You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?’

This is a good question when it comes to Borges. Because I don’t speak Spanish I obviously don’t understand his native language. Andrew Hurley has translated his words into English rather well though, I believe, so it’s on another level that I hesitate to answer. In his story The Library of Babel, his unknown narrator, while speaking about a universe that is an infinite library full of a nearly infinite amount of books, which can exist because on top of all the known languages and topics, the Library has foreseen and utilized secret tongues – including languages that use the same vocabulary:

‘…in some of them, the symbol “library” possesses the correct definition “everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries,” while a library – the thing – is a loaf of bread or a pyramid or something else, and the six words that define it themselves have other definitions.’

The stuff that Borges comes up with is absolutely mind boggling, and yes, I sometimes feel like he is using words and phrases that I know and understand, but in such a way that the meaning is entirely different from what I expect.

In a technical sense, I like this story. The writing is so bizarre and playful. There are startling bits of dark humor and the mind warp that it induced in me was oddly enjoyable. However, the concept and subject of the story was kind of awful!

I would have thought that a universe made up of an infinite amount of hexagonal galleries filled with books, where your sole purpose would be to read and curate your portion – your collection – would be a lovely place to hang out. This place that Borges thought up is not so friendly. Those book-filled rooms are cramped and airless, filled with unceasing but insufficient light. There is a place for each librarian to sleep – standing up! – and a toilet, each in tiny separate compartments. The books in the rooms are all identical, with the exact same amount of pages, lines per page, and letters per line. There is no correlation between the titles and the content, and the likelihood of a book containing anything actually readable is slim to none.

‘This much is known: For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.’

Sounds unbearable! The narrator, an old man who seems to be making a last ditch effort to convince himself that there is some order to this mad world, mentions that through epidemics, heretical discords, suicides, and ‘pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage’ he believes the human race is on the verge of extinction.

It’s a very dark, kind of sad, story (if you can call something this abstract a story!). There are some interesting ideas mixed in, which other members of our non-structured reading group have done a great job of picking out. For myself, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the questions of philosophy and theology, because the weight of this huge Library was crushing me. In that sense, the story had a big impact on me. I keep obsessively thinking about all those books, being surrounded by every possible book, and how weird it would be to not be able to read most of them…

That is really what I want to get out of something when I take the time to devote myself to reading it – I want it to make SOME kind of an impression on me, and I think Borges always will, one way or the other. Not my favorite story by Borges, but still an interesting experience.

More Borges stories next week! 🙂


  1. I liked it, but I agree it gives you so much to think about! Therefore I think I’ve had my fill of Borges for the nonce. Maybe for infinity!

    • An infinity without any more Borges? Surely you must be joking! 🙂

  2. I ended up with a totally different interpretation of this story from everyone else. Are we reading the same language?

    It really is mind-bending, though. You could write a whole entire book on this short little piece.

    • I loved your piece about the book, and your reaction – just haven’t gotten a chance to comment yet. That’s definitely a cool aspect of this story – infinite room for interpretation.

  3. Sarah, I see that you got weirded out by some of the dark sides of the story as well. Glad I’m not alone in that! Agree with your perception that Borges is “mind boggling,” though, which makes him very rewarding even when he’s not in top form. Given that a lot of people think that “The Library of Babel” is one of Borges’ greatest stories, I’m interested in hearing what your favorite Borges pieces are so far!

    • Yes, I was definitely ‘weirded out’ by this story. I’ll get back to you on what my favorite Borges story turns out to be – I’m up for quite a bit more mind boggle the way Borges dishes it up!

  4. My response wasn’t quite so visceral as it sounds like yours was, but I definitely did see the horror and futility you’re talking about. Love that you pulled that quote about the reader understanding his language – that really was the cherry on top of Borges’s mental gymnastics sundae. 😀

    • ‘Mental gymnastics’ – love that phrase! So perfect for the workout that Borges gives you.

  5. That is really what I want to get out of something when I take the time to devote myself to reading it – I want it to make SOME kind of an impression on me, and I think Borges always will, one way or the other.

    Yes, this is how I always feel as well. I’m really appreciating this readalong but at the same time I feel like it’s not until I’ve made my way through much more of his work, and back again for another round, that I feel like I can really say much interesting. But there are definite strong impressions!

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