What would you do if you were stuck in a library for hours every single day with nothing to do? Well, if you were Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, you would write some of the most influential short stories in the history of American literature (and by American, we mean all of the Americas – as in, the entire Western hemisphere). See, Borges was a librarian who was much, much too good at his job. He was so good at it, in fact, that his coworkers complained that he was making them look bad. So Borges got in the habit of finishing his work quickly, and then spending the rest of the day writing stories in the basement. One of these stories, "The Library of Babel," was first published as part of a collection in Spanish in 1941, and then translated into English in 1962.
The sharp prose and mind-bending ideas found in these stories went on to inspire the writers of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, and influenced Nobel Prize winners like Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago, and J.M. Coetzee. Borges was such a prolific writer, and had such a distinctive style, that the term "Borgesian" became an accepted way to describe an idea that is abstract, metaphysical, and fantastical. Yep. Dude got his own adjective. (We have to admit we're a little jealous.)
"The Library of Babel" takes place in – you guessed it – a library. It doesn't have a lot of characters, or even much of a plot, but what it lacks in action it totally makes up for in the complete awesomeness of its concept. The premise is this: the Library of Babel is a "total" library, containing every single possible combination of letters. This means it contains every piece of literature ever written, along with everything that hasn't been written, and a whole lot of gibberish, too.
Borges takes this idea – which he got from German science fiction writer Kurd Lasswitz – and runs with it, asking us to think about all of the implications of the total library until our brains hurt. The end result seems eerily predictive of today's Internet, which we can think of as a sort of digital "total library" containing a lot of valuable information, as well as a lot of junk. Thanks in part to this story, many critics have pointed to Borges as a sort of prophet of the Internet age. (Check out this article from the New York Times about the book Borges 2.0, which explores some of the ways in which Borges prefigured the Internet.)
"The Library of Babel" is arguably Borges' most famous story, partly because it's such a classic example of his work and the ideas he loved. Borges often wrote about mind-stretching ideas like infinity, the nature of reality, and labyrinths, and you'll find all of those elements here. But this story's popularity might also be due in part to the fact that it's easy to identify the narrator, an aging, soon-to-be-blind librarian, with Borges himself. A instantly-recognizable celebrity beloved not only in his native Argentina but also abroad, Borges completely lost his sight in the same year that he was appointed Director of Argentina's National Library.
We hope you enjoy getting to know Borges and his library.
Ah, the library. We at Shmoop are happy to say that it's one of our favorite places on earth. Where else can you enjoy free wifi, the latest bestsellers, and the company of cute nerdy boys and girls in tortoiseshell glasses? Okay, okay, we recognize that not everyone is the bookish type, but we do know that when finals roll around, the library is the place to be. And when you haven't started the ten-page research paper on the American Revolution that's due tomorrow morning, the librarian can be your BFF. (As long as we're still your first love.)
Of course, we're willing to admit that studying at the library can get tedious after a while. Sometimes it's not entirely easy to find the information you need. Sometimes the fluorescent lighting lends an unattractive pallor to your normally glowing complexion. Sometimes the hushed tones of your study companions can give you the urge to SCREAM AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS. In other words, sometimes a library can be... well, a bit stuffy.
But before you go ragging on our favorite public institution, think about it this way – it could be worse. Way, way worse. In Borges' short story "The Library of Babel," the Library isn't an overly-air-conditioned building with a built-in coffee shop and a summer reading club. No. The Library is all encompassing. It's infinite. It takes up The. Entire. Universe.
And in case you're thinking that Borges' infinite Library sounds like a nerd's paradise, allow us to provide you with a few more depressing details: the lighting is bad, the organizational system is a mess, and most of the librarians have committed suicide. Oh yeah, and you can't even read any of the books.
Borges' Library is a librarian's nightmare – it's terrifying, but also fascinating. Plus, it sure makes us feel grateful for good old Dewey and his decimal system.
The Library of Babel... Digitized!
Now you can pick up a book off the shelf in the Library of Babel and browse its pages, hoping to come across a legible phrase, an interesting pattern, or even a secret code. The Internet is a marvelous invention, is it not?
The Garden of Forking Paths
Allen B. Ruch runs this website, which is an astounding collection of information about and inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges.
A growing number of scholars are making the case that "The Library of Babel" and some of Borges' other mind-bending stories contain the seeds of the Internet culture that we live in today. (Be on the lookout for a collection of essays entitled Cy-Borges. We kid you not.) This article in the New York Times draws a few parallels between Borges' ideas and some of our most beloved digital institutions (like Wikipedia).
An Interview with Borges in the New York Times
The New York Times interviewed Borges in 1971. He explains that being a widely beloved intellectual means, among other things, that you don't have to pay cab fare.
William Goldbloom Block, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel (2008)
If you enjoyed crunching the numbers in Borges' story and figuring out, for example, how many books there are in the Library, or how big the Library has to be, you might want to check out this book by Professor William Goldbloom Block. In an approachable style, he explores the mathematical theory behind the story.
The Mirror Man
This 2007 documentary about Jorge Luis Borges was made by director Philippe Molins.
Borges Does Tango
Borges wasn't just an essayist – he was also, evidently, a lyricist. In the 1960s, Borges collaborated with legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla to create a series of tangos. Their work was rerecorded and released as an album in 1994.
More Recordings of Borges' Tangos
Argentine singer Valeria Munarriz covers several of these tangos, as well as others inspired by Borges. You can listen to samples from the album here.
"The Riddle of Poetry"
Borges delivers a lecture at Harvard in 1967.
The Borges Gallery
A collection of images of Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges the Librarian
At the National Library in Argentina.
The Infinite Library
Here's an artist's depiction of what Borges' Library could look like – does it look anything like what you've been imagining?