The Library of Babel
by Jorge Luis Borges
The Library of Babel Theme of Literature and Writing
"The Library of Babel" explores the fine line between the material act of writing and the meaning of language. We tend to take it for granted that most things that are written down are legible, but in the case of the Library, most of what is written down is totally incomprehensible to its inhabitants. In one giant thought experiment, Borges takes us through all of the implications of living in a world where writing exists for its own sake, and people have to try to interpret it with human inventions like languages and codes. In the end, Borges blows our mind by showing us how language itself unravels in the face of the eternal Library. Can we even be sure we understand the very story we're reading?
Questions About Literature and Writing
- Is there a difference between the writing contained in the books of the Library and the writing done by the librarians?
- How does the librarian know about writers such as Tacitus and Bede, or other librarians such as Letizia Alvarez de Toledo?
- The librarian's question: "You who read me – are you sure you understand my language?" is a paradox. What happens if we admit the possibility that we don't understand the language of the narrator? How does this affect our reading of the story?
- The narrator tells us that, in an attempt to explain the jumbled writing of the books in the Library, some "have mentioned the possibility of codes; that conjecture has been universally accepted, though not in the sense in which its originators formulated it" (6). What does he mean by this? In what sense did the "originators" of this theory think the books were encoded? How does the narrator think the books are encoded?
Chew on This
Writing is completely meaningless in this story. Any meaning it may have is projected onto it by the human inhabitants of the Library.