Study Guide

The Library of Babel Literature and Writing

By Jorge Luis Borges

Literature and Writing

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94, consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another (much consulted in this zone) is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase <em>O Time thy pyramids</em>. (5)

We like how he refers to the jumble of letters as a "labyrinth" – reading them and trying to make sense of them is like getting lost in a maze.

This much is known: For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency. (5)

Hmm... doesn't this sound a lot like the Internet today?  For example, for all of the quality websites you're allowed to cite in your research papers, there are a whole lot of sites full of incomplete or untrustworthy information. (A lot of "senseless cacophony" probably shows up on your Facebook newsfeed, too.)

They will acknowledge that the inventors of writing imitated the twenty-five natural symbols, but contend that that adoption was fortuitous, coincidental, and that books in themselves have no meaning. (5)

This part is a little confusing. It seems as though in the universe of the Library, "writing" is something that the librarians do, whereas the books contain "natural symbols." So this story that we're reading right now is an example of "writing," because the librarian is composing it.

For many years it was believed that those impenetrable books were in ancient or far-distant languages...but four hundred ten pages of unvarying M C V's cannot belong to any language, however dialectical or primitive it may be. (6)

The narrator's comment brings up the question of what makes a language. Why can't the letters M C V repeated over and over again be a language? What does a language have to have? These are huge questions. See how the teensiest offhand line in a Borges story can open up enormous discussions?

The content was also determined: the rudiments of combinatory analysis, illustrated with examples of endlessly repeating variations. (7)

The content of this book – a mathematical study of the number of different ways you can combine things – gives us a BIG CLUE as to the nature of the books of the Library. How many ways can you combine 25 written symbols for 410 pages? That's the content of the Library – just a bunch of "examples of endlessly repeating variations."

<em>All</em> – the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the <em>true</em> catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary of that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus. (7)

Borges has a tendency to include quirky lists of bizarre and improbable items in his stories.  This one serves to illustrate that absolutely anything you could think to express in writing must be contained within the total Library.

At that period there was much talk of The Vindications – books of <em>apologiae</em> and prophecies that would vindicate for all time the actions of every person in the universe and that held wondrous arcana for men's futures. (8)

This is another example of a seriously cool imaginary item that has to be included in the Library if we assume that it's a <em>total</em> Library. Where does Borges come up with this stuff?

It would be pointless to observe that the finest volume of all the many hexagons that I myself administer is titled <em>Combed Thunder,</em> while another is titled <em>The Plaster Cramp</em>, and another <em>Axaxaxas mlö</em>. Those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are undoubtedly susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical "reading"; that reading, that justification of the words' order and existence, is itself verbal and, <em>ex hypothesi</em>, already contained somewhere in the Library. (13)

Oh man... just when we figured we at least knew how to separate the ridiculous phrases in the Library from the ones that make sense, here the narrator explains to us that <em>everything</em> in the Library has some sort of hidden meaning. Every phrase has a sort of decoder key that must be written down somewhere in the Library.

There is no combination of characters one can make – <em>dhcmrlchtdj</em>, for example – that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. (13)

Even random jumbles of letters are like a code that can be decoded by a key written down somewhere in the Library.

This pointless, verbose epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five bookshelves in one of the countless hexagons – as does its refutation.

Now that the narrator mentions it, it makes sense – even this story that we're reading right now must already exist in the Library. We love it when Borges draws the reader's attention to the act of reading itself. It's so meta.

(A number <em>n</em> of the possible languages employ the same vocabulary; in some of them, the <em>symbol</em> "library" possesses the correct definition "everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries," while a library – the thing – is a loaf of bread or a pyramid or something else, and the six words that define it themselves have other definitions. You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?) (13)

Uh-oh, now everything is really starting to unravel. If every written word in the Library has a secret meaning, who's to say the word "library" means what we think it does? We could even look up the definition of the word "library" and find a definition that makes sense to us. But maybe that definition also means something other than what we understand it to mean. Maybe this whole system of words is really a deception. Can we be sure we understand the author's intentions when we read anything? This makes our brain hurt. In a good way.

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