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The story opens with a mysterious epigraph: "By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 22 letters..." Huh? We thought there were 26 letters in the English alphabet (and 27 in Spanish, the original language of this story). WHAT COULD THIS MEAN? Let's keep reading and see if we can figure it out. (If you're feeling impatient, you can check out our discussion "What's Up With the Epigraph?" now.)
The first paragraph consists of a description of the universe. All right – apparently we're not starting small.
What does this universe look like? Well, it's a lot like a library, and, in fact, some people call it just that: "the Library" (1).
The universe/Library is composed of an uncountable number of hexagon-shaped rooms. In the center of each room is a ventilation shaft, from which you can see the endless floors above and below.
Four sides of each hexagon are covered in bookshelves (five to each side). The remaining two walls contain a hallway, or vestibule, that opens onto another, identical, hexagonal room.
What if we need to use the bathroom? Don't worry – on either side of the vestibule are two compartments, one for sleeping and the other for, um... "satisfying one's physical necessities" (1).
Each vestibule also contains two other important things: a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward through all the countless levels of the Library, and a mirror.
The mirror brings up the question of infinity. Is the Library infinite, or isn't it? Some people ("men," according to the text... we wonder if there are any women around) argue that if the library were infinite, the "illusory" or artificial doubling of the universe that the mirror provides would be unnecessary. The narrator, on the other hand, thinks that the mirror's reflection is a representation and "promise of the infinite" (1).
Before we get carried away with that metaphysical discussion, we have one last thing to say about the Library. Each hexagon contains two light bulbs, which provide insufficient light, but which never, ever turn off.
Now the narrator starts to get personal. He doesn't seem to have a name, so let's call him "the librarian." Like all the men of the Library, he says, he too traveled in his younger days. (Again with that "men" thing... do the women of the Library not travel? Or are there simply no women in the Library?)
The librarian didn't just bum around on his travels. He was on a quest – a quest for a book! Well, what else would you quest for in a library?
Now the librarian is elderly. His eyes are failing him, and he can barely read his own writing. He's preparing to die, only "a few leagues from the hexagon where [he] was born" (2).
What will happen to the narrator's body after he dies? Well... you remember those ventilation shafts at the center of every room? "Compassionate hands will throw me over the railing," the librarian explains (2). His body will decay as it falls through the air. Forever.
Now the librarian comes right out and expresses his deeply held opinion on the cosmos: "the Library is endless" (2).
Apparently the cosmological structure of the Library is a matter of great debate. Several groups have their theories on the matter.
The Idealists say that the hexagon is the only conceivable shape of the rooms of the Library. A triangular shape, say, or a pentagonal one would be impossible.
The Mystics, by the way, claim that they've had visions of a circular room containing one circular book whose spine goes completely around the walls. Their mystic blabber is a little difficult to understand, the librarian tells us, but the circular book of their visions is God.
The librarian doesn't have a strong opinion on the shape of the individual rooms, but he does know one thing: the Library as a whole is a giant sphere. Not only that, but the center of the sphere is any hexagon. In other words, no matter where you go in the Library, you're standing in the center of the universe.
Also, the circumference of the universe-sphere is unattainable. What could that mean? Does it mean that no matter how big you imagine the sphere to be, it's always bigger than that? Does that mean it's infinite? Whoa... that's kind of hard to imagine.
Back to the bookshelves: four of the walls of the hexagon have five shelves apiece. Each bookshelf holds 32 matching books. Each book has 410 pages. Each page has 40 lines. And each line has about 80 letters written in black ink.
There are also some letters written on the cover of each book. But here's the problem – the writing on the cover has nothing to do with the writing inside the book.
This lack of correspondence was once considered a great mystery. (Ooooohhhhh...) The librarian plans to tell us about the resolution of the mystery, which he says is arguably the most important event in all of history, but before he does...
...He needs to go over a few more basic points about the Library. He calls these points "axioms," which are basic truths from which we can logically figure out other things about the world.
Axiom One: The Library has always existed. Therefore, it will always exist.
According to the librarian, this is so obvious that no rational person could ever doubt it. After all, the Library is so perfect and elegant that it must have been created by a god. As evidence, the librarian points out the difference between his sloppy handwriting and the perfectly even letters in the Library's books.
Axiom Two: There are 25 written symbols.
Hold it! We interrupt this summary of the librarian's axioms to bring you a FOOTNOTE BREAK! Footnotes are especially interesting in stories by Borges because it's not always clear who's writing them.
In this case, the footnote tells us that "the original manuscript" (in other words, the text written by the librarian) does, in fact, contain only 25 symbols – the 22 letters of the alphabet, the space, the comma, and the period. Then, in parentheses, the footnote reads: "[Ed. note]."
This may seem like a tiny thing, but really it's a huge thing disguised as an incidental footnote. Who wrote this "Editor's note"? Not someone from the same universe as the librarian. How do we know? Well, the Editor says that the writer of the "original manuscript" doesn't have symbols for numbers or capital letters. Which leads us to assume that the Editor does have those symbols. Since the fact that there are only 25 written symbols is a basic axiom of the Library universe, it must be that the Editor inhabits some other universe.
The little interruption that this footnote provides leads us off on all sorts of tangents. Now would be a great time, for example, to take another look at the epigraph, or to read our "What's Up With the Epigraph?" section.
Okay, now that we've given you lots to think about, let's get back to the main story.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Axiom Two: There are 25 written symbols. This discovery, made 300 years ago, enabled the inhabitants of the Library to formulate a general theory of the universe. This theory explained why nearly all of the books in the Library seemed to contain nothing but gibberish.
The librarian lists a couple of instances where a coherent line has been found in a book in his area. But for every intelligible line, he says, there are "leagues of senseless cacophony" and nonsense (5).
In a parenthetical aside, the librarian tells us of a "semibarbarous zone," where the librarians have completely given up on trying to make sense out of books. In their opinion, writing does imitate the "twenty-five natural symbols," but books themselves have no meaning. What does our narrator the librarian have to say about this? Well... that they may have a point.
For many years, the librarian says, people thought that the reason books were incomprehensible was that they were written in a foreign language. This turned out to be false. While the first librarians did speak a language very different from the one spoken by librarians today, the gibberish written in books is too absurd to belong to any language.
Some think that the books could be written in code. The librarian says that the idea has been universally accepted, though not in the way it was originally intended.
About 500 years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon discovered a book containing almost two pages of text that seemed to make sense.
FOOTNOTE BREAK! Yes, kids, it's that time again. This footnote seems to be more straightforward that the last one. It's written by the same librarian who wrote the main body of the story. In other words, this footnote is a part of the "original manuscript."
The librarian says that, long ago, there was one man for every three hexagons. Now, however, many of the librarians have died, mostly from lung disease or suicide. The librarian says he sometimes travels for nights on end without encountering anyone.
Back to the main story again. So, 500 years ago, the chief of an upper hexagon discovers a book with two pages that seem to make sense. He shows them around, and it turns out they're written in a Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní, with inflections from classical Arabic. (Yes, you can go ahead and laugh – it's supposed to be funny.)
The content of the two pages seems as obscure as the language it's written in – it's a description of "the rudiments of combinatory analysis," a branch of mathematics that studies the number of different ways of arranging things. The description is accompanied by "examples of endlessly repeating variations" (7). Sounds pretty boring, right?
But that list of different ways to combine things gave a hint to the fundamental law of the Library, discovered by a "librarian of genius" (7).
Mr. Genius Librarian started with two facts: that, like we've mentioned, there are only 25 written symbols. And that, in all the Library, there are no two identical books.
Mr. Genius therefore reasoned that the Library is "total." That is to say, its bookshelves contain every single possible combination of the 25 written symbols. As the narrator librarian points out, the number of combinations is HUGE, but it's not infinite.
(This law also clears up the great mystery that we mentioned earlier – the problem of the titles of the books not matching up to the contents of their pages. Each title is just another combination of letters.)
Just think of all the things that must be written if the Library contains every single possible combination of letters. The narrator librarian gives us a few examples in a fabulously Borgesian list that includes true and false histories and books that were never written.
When this fundamental law of the Library, that it contains all possible books, was first announced, people were crazy happy. Think about it – the solution to every single problem anyone's ever had is right there in the library!
Everyone got especially excited about the idea of The Vindications, books people imagined would contain both explanations and justifications for every action of an individual, and also prophesy his or her future. (Okay, Borges only refers to men's futures, but there have to be some women out there somewhere, right?)
The narrator librarian says that thousands of individuals journeyed out in search of their own personal Vindication. Most of those pilgrims met with unfortunate ends.
The librarian tells us that the Vindications do exist, and that he personally has seen two of them that refer to people in the future, which might not be imaginary (but who's to say?). But he points out what the questers forgot to consider – that the probability of a person finding his or her own Vindication is practically zero.
At the same time as Vindication-questers were optimistically (and foolishly) searching for their own personal life stories, people began to hope that a book might be found which would explain the origins of the Library and of time. There were even official searchers, or "inquisitors," who traveled from hexagon to hexagon, searching for this holy book and throwing out any that looked dirty.
These searches have been going on for 400 years now, and clearly at this point, no one expects to find anything.
After the initial wave of optimism, the inhabitants of the Library got majorly depressed. Sure, the truth is out there, but there's virtually no chance that they're ever going to find it.
One radical group even suggested that men should randomly shuffle letters until they produced a work of genius by pure chance. This reminds us of that old idea that an infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.
Another group, the "Purifiers," figured that the best way to find any worthwhile books was to start eliminating the ones full of gibberish. They destroyed entire walls of books, to some people's dismay, in the hopes of someday finding the magical books of "the Crimson Hexagon."
The librarian points out that those outraged by the Purifiers' destruction need to chill. After all, there are so many books in the Library that no matter how many books the Purifers eliminate, it can only be a drop in the bucket. Not to mention the fact that every book that is destroyed has a bazillion copies that differ from it by no more than a single letter or punctuation mark.
The librarian mentions one more "superstition" developed from the mythology of the Library – that of the "Book-Man" (12). The argument goes like this: on some shelf somewhere there must exist one book that is the key to all the other books in the library – let's call it the Super Book. It's sort of a catalog and a decoder ring in one.
It follows that some librarian somewhere must have at some point examined that book, thereby acquiring godlike powers of knowledge. This guy would have access to all of the information in the world, like he's walking around with Google and Wikipedia in his pocket. Meanwhile, everybody else thinks they're lucky if they can find a book that contains one intelligible word.
Some people even developed a religion based around the worship of the Book-Man, and many have gone in search of "Him" (12).
Our narrator librarian himself has spent years in this mystical kind of scholarly pursuit. He explains the nature of his belief in another...
FOOTNOTE BREAK! Yep, it's time for footnote number three. The Super Book must be out there, the librarian says, because everything that is possible must exist. Only the impossible can be excluded from existence. He gives us an example of an impossible book: no book is also a staircase. In other words, no book is not a book.
Okay, back to the narrative.
The librarian prays that someone at some point in time has read the Super Book. Even if he has to live in "hell" – in other words, in ignorance and confusion – he wants to believe that one person was able to attain an enlightened state and make sense of the Library.
The librarian doesn't think well of faithless "infidels" who ignorantly think that the Library contains nothing but disorder. He believes that even the most incomprehensible gibberish contained within the Library is not truly nonsense. Every combination of letters, he argues, is significant in some sort of coded or allegorical way.
There is no possible combination of letters that the Library has not "foreseen," explains the librarian (13). In one or more of the Library's secret languages, every syllable has a secret meaning.
"To speak is to commit tautologies," the librarian explains. Tautology is a rhetorical term that refers to the needless repetition of an idea using different words. In other words, it's saying the same thing twice. Or three times. In fact, you could say the same thing over and over again using different phrases and commit as many tautologies as you want. (Are you getting an idea of what a tautology is now, or should we keep going?)
When the librarian says that "to speak is to commit tautologies," what he means is that anything you can say has already been said before. Even "this pointless, verbose epistle," the text that we're reading right now, is contained somewhere within the total Library (13). And an argument against it exists somewhere, too.
As the librarian points out in a quick parenthetical aside (that means between parentheses), language itself poses a problem in the Library. Because each word can have different meanings, the word "library" itself can indicate anything from a loaf of bread to a pyramid. Can we be certain, even as we read this story, that we understand what the narrator is trying to communicate? How do we know that his words don't have an entirely different set of meanings from the ones we're familiar with?
So if everything has already been said, why does the librarian bother to write at all? The answer: to distract him from the sorry state of the human race.
Humanity as a whole is suffering from the knowledge that everything worth saying has already been written down. There's a widespread feeling of general uselessness.
Some young people have taken to making physical love to the pages of books, instead of learning how to read. The librarian mentions this as an example of the kinds of pathetic behavior the inhabitants of the Library have been reduced to.
Other people have taken sides in "heretical discords" (or arguments over weird ideas), died in epidemics, or been picked off by bandits during ill-fated quests. (Borges uses the phrase "pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage." Isn't brigandage a fantastic word? It refers to the life and practice of brigands, or bandits. You know, people that plunder and commit highway robbery and all that good stuff.) (14)
The librarian fears that human beings as a species (the only species in the universe of the Library) are on their last legs. Even after people are wiped out, however, he believes the infinite Library will endure.
Just to clarify, the narrator lets us know that he doesn't use the word "infinite" by chance. He really does believe that the universe of the Library goes on forever. The idea that the hexagons and the corridors and the staircases actually end somewhere is just absurd, he says.
But there's a problem – remember that the number of books in the Library, while really, really huge, is actually finite? Let's see, there are 410 pages in a book, times 40 lines per page, times an average of 80 characters per line...that's about 1,312,000 spaces to be filled with one of the possible 25 characters.
Okay, got your calculators out? If each space can be filled with one of 25 different characters, the total number of books in the library would be 25 x 25 x 25 x 25 x 25... oh, let's do that one million three hundred and twelve thousand times. In other words, 25 to the 1,312,000th power. That number, though enormous, is not infinity.
So how does the librarian resolve this paradox? Okay, here's his grand theory: "The Library is unlimited but periodic."
In other words, the Library repeats itself. Just like if you walk in a straight line from any point on the Earth, you'll come around to the place where you left off, if you walk far enough in any direction in the Library, you'll start coming across the same sets of books all over again.
This is a really cutting-edge theory our librarian has just told us. In the world of the Library, he's being "bold" to suggest it. We think this makes him a sort of bibliophilic Galileo.
The apparent "disorder" of the Library, repeated over and over again periodically, becomes a kind of order. In fact, it becomes The Order, in big, important capital letters. It's the order of life, the universe, and everything.
The librarian closes by saying that the idea of order in the universe cheers him in his solitude. Even though he's alone and about to die, he clings to a hope for elegance.
We could stop here, but why not end the story with one last FOOTNOTE BREAK? Borges just can't resist an opportunity to blow our minds one more time.
Okay, in this fourth and final footnote, it looks like our librarian narrator is the one writing again. He mentions that a woman named Letizia Alvarez de Toledo has a completely different way of thinking about the Library. In her opinion, it's pointless for the Library to be infinitely vast and take up so much space. All that you need, she argues, is a single volume with an infinite number of pages.
BTW, the librarian says, this idea is sort of similar to that of 17th century Italian mathematician Bonaventura Cavalieri, who stated that every solid body is made up of an infinite number of planes stacked on top of each other.
See if you can picture it: one book, the same size as any of the normal books in the Library, whose pages were infinitely thin. So every page that you pick up would be able to be split into two pages. And each of those pages would split into two more pages...and so on. The middle page of the volume would be "inconceivable," according to the librarian, because it would have no "back."
Geesh, as if our head weren't already spinning with trying to imagine the idea of infinity expanding outward. Now we have to try to imagine it expanding inward as well! This seven-page story is definitely giving our brains a good workout.
Okay, that really is the end. Here Borges signs off with the place and date that he wrote the story: Mar de Plata (a seaside city in Argentina), 1941.