May 15, 2010

"The Library of Babel" (Jorge Luis Borges)

Books in themselves have no meaning.
– Jorge Luis Borges. "The Library of Babel." In The Mirror of Ink. (Pocket Penguin, 2005). Selections from Collected Fictions. (Viking Penguin, 1998).

The books signify nothing in themselves.
– Jorge Luis Borges. "The Library of Babel." In Labyrinths. Edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby. Story translated by James E. Irby. (New Directions, 1964 augmented edition).

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a Rubik's Cube – a cube whose faces are made up of 3 x 3 colored squares, six colors in all distributed equally among the six faces of the cube. Imagine a solved Rubik's cube; that is, a cube where the 9 squares in one face are of the same color. Now let us add dimension to this cube and transform it into a tesseract, a geometrical figure where all the faces of the cube are laid out in a four-dimensional hypercube. (One of its orthogonal projections is shaped like a solid cross.) Imagine a Sudoku. Have you ever played one? It's one of those number games that you solve mentally. The game is composed of a grid of 9 by 9 empty square cells, some of them filled with numbers, some of them empty. Sudoku has specific rules; like for example, no number must be repeated in one horizontal series of boxes. Now imagine that each of the faces of the hypercube, unraveled from a Rubik's cube, is a game of Sudoku. That means there are 9 by 9 colored squares instead of 3 by 3. Think of Borges's Library of Babel as a Sudoku then. At least in terms of cellular architecture. And think of the dimensions as infinite instead of 9 by 9. There is thus an infinite solution to the problem. Now think of the square pixel as a hexagon. That is, cut out the tesseract faces into squares and line up the squares upright like bookshelves?

So much for thought experiments. Now on to the story, the second of three Borges pieces this May. Here is fiction, speculation. The construction of a Total Library whose smallest unit is hexagon, and whose spatial dimension is infinite. Its outer shape is a sphere. The hexagonal rooms are interlinked with each other by staircases and doors. At one time librarians manned the hexagons by threes. Now the librarians are becoming extinct. There is an ongoing war inside the Library of Babel. There is an invisible hierarchy and constant power play. It is its own world, a beehive, a colony of bibliophiles, complete with history, replete with heroes and villains. There is the Crimson Hexagon, The Vindications, the Purifiers, the latrines, the unending ladders, the Book-Man, the Total Book, and so on. It is an illustrious repository of books in all languages, with its own alphabet and writing system (orthographic symbols), 25 symbols in all.

This puzzle-story is concerned with the architecture of the library just as much as with its contents. Not unlike Sudoku with infinite solutions, the library is a condominium of conceit, a monolithic edifice. As much concerned with the layout of the library as with its internal philosophy, this story can be seen as Borges’s homage to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, imagination derived from knowledge, knowledge derived from meanings, meanings from books, books shelved in libraries, libraries encased in hexagons. An imaginary construct then, whose totality is infinite and whose solutions to any conceivable problems of the world can be found. The location of the fountain of youth, the history of Atlantis, the art and architecture of El Dorado.

The Library of Babel is a learned city with its own particularities, its own rules of the game. The story called "The Library of Babel" is a thought experiment, speculative fiction, an artist’s rendering of what is possible, the staggering diversity of information, its past history (a tautology*), its implications for the future (another tautology). Censorship, for example, is futile because all the books are replicated in one way or another. The Library of Babel celebrates the security and encryption of data storage. Think of encyclopedia, storehouse of knowledge, in a book of six faces, coded in a new language with 25 orthographic symbols. Think of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, housed in an ultra-secure physical dormitory. The Library of Babel and the story called "The Library of Babel" exist to be unraveled by the reader in his cubicle, to be searched and re-searched.

Books in themselves have no meaning – that is one of the dicta of the Total Library, in Andrew Hurley’s translation**. I agree. We must read them first, assiduously. To create meaning is not for the sake of books, nor for the writer of books. Come visit a library, rummage through the shelves, pick out a book, read. That may be the only way to stumble upon intermittent truths, find the clue to solve a mathematical conjecture, or learn about the lifestyle of a hidden god. 

"To speak is to commit tautologies. This pointless verbose epistle already exists … in one of the countless hexagons – as does its refutation." (p. 27, The Mirror of Ink)

** It is interesting to read this story in two translations by Irby and Hurley. One notes for example that the editor’s footnote is fictitious, written by Borges or whoever the designated editor of the story is. The identity of the narrator, who sounds like a prophet, is a mystery as well.


  1. "This puzzle-story is concerned with the architecture of the library just as much as with its contents." Excellent point, Rise, and I like where you go with that thought after bringing it up. Ironically, I also thought of the Rubik's Cube (and The Matrix!) when I was thinking about the story earlier in the week. A very visual story in its own way despite all the abstract cosmology, no? P.S. Are you still participating in that Javier Marías readalong you mentioned a while back? Where is it being held? I'd be interested in following the discussions if it's still going on.

  2. Richard, it is indeed highly visual. It would make for a good movie in itself and it will be interesting how the art director & production designer will execute the set.

    The Marías reading is over at Conversational Reading (schedule, posts). It’s now in Week 9 (out of Week 17). I got distracted by other books and now behind with the reading of the 2nd volume.

  3. I loved the visual aspects of the story myself. Borges spends quite a bit of narration describing exactly what the library looks like, and how it's all laid out, and how the whole universe built up this way works. I think that's very important to actually enabling the thought experiments at the heart of the story, and in some way I feel like it both obscures and also lays bare how few differences the library has to our own universe.

  4. Yes, I love the interior and exterior design of the library. I even wonder what kind of power source it uses, maybe something renewable, like solar or wind! :) It's intriguing how Borges started the story with the "universe" (or the "world," in di Giovanni's translation) being compared to Library of Babel, and then allowing the reader to gauge how apt the comparison is. Two things, I think, support the idea. First is what happen inside the hexagonal galleries (there are intrigues, there are searches, inquisitors, murders) also happen in the world. Second is books in the library represent knowledge in, of, by the whole world. But then Borges included some senseless scribbles in the books, again maybe a reflection of the mediocre and nonsense in some of what's written and published. The real knowledge, the true knowledge, is found in great works of art, which the library also presumably contains. The Book of Books may be elusive but there are several that can approximate the inner workings of the universe: the masterpieces. I came across an article on what books Borges want to populate the Library of Babel with. The search for these missing titles is proving to be an exciting detective work. In many ways like readers poring over book after book, trying to come across the great books that really matter.