The Library of Babel
by Jorge Luis Borges
The Library of Babel Theme of Rules and Order
The Library in "The Library of Babel" is a universe built according to a set of rules. In fact, it's the most orderly universe you could possibly imagine. All of the rooms look exactly the same, and contain the same number of books with the same number of pages. And the way the people of the library think about things is extremely orderly as well – just look at the arguments that the narrator presents to us. Notice how they're extremely logical and follow a clearly regimented system of thought? The orderly reasoning of the Library's inhabitants allows them to come up with the greatest rule of all: the Library is "total," meaning it contains every single combination of letters that is possible.
Questions About Rules and Order
- Because rules and logic play such a large part in Borges' stories, they often appeal to people who like math and reasoning. So here's a math question for all you young Einsteins: how many books are there in the Library? We know it's a huge number, but it's not infinite. Here are some of the numbers to get you started: There are 410 pages in a book. There are 40 lines per page. There are 80 letters per line. There are 25 possible letters (including punctuation and spaces). Once you've figured that out, see if you can figure out how many hexagons are in the Library. Remember there are 20 bookshelves per hexagon, and 32 books per shelf. Since there used to be one librarian for every three hexagons, how many librarians used to live in the Library?
- Do you think it would be possible for the librarians to read every single book in the Library? If so, how? If you don't think it would be possible, why not?
- What are some ways that the narrator's writing imitates the strictly ordered structure of the Library? Do you also notice some times where the narrator's writing isn't very structured and orderly? Why do you think that might be?
- Do you agree more with the narrator or with the group that he calls the "infidels"? Do you think, as the narrator does, that everything in the Library, even the gibberish, has a secret meaning that is important in the larger Order of things? Or do you think the Library is full of more nonsense than sense?
- Can you imagine another way the Library might be structured? For example, can you picture a Library made up of triangular or pentagonal rooms, instead of hexagonal ones? Try drawing your ideas (or building them in tangrams).
Chew on This
The orderly structure to the narrator's writing has its roots in the ordered structure of the Library itself. The narrator takes the visible order of the world he lives in as a starting point, and from there uses logic to make other assertions about the Library.
Instead of setting off on dangerous pilgrimages in search of meaningful books, it would make a lot more sense for each librarian to read all of the books in his own native hexagons.