The Library of Babel as a Challenge
Jorge Luis Borges first published “The Library of Babel” as part of a larger collection of stories in 1941. “The Library of Babel” details a massive library composed of a formulaic set of hexagonal galleries. Each wall of the hexagon contains a set amount of shelves, and each shelf has a certain number of books. Within each book is a random ordering of the 25 written characters (22 plus comma, period, and space) over 410 pages. Thus, most of the books are nonsensical. However, if every permutation of characters exists in some book, then perhaps the all of the answers one could ever want are waiting in one book. Herein lies the intrigue of the Library. All solutions to any problem existed within one of the hexagonal libraries; the trick is to find the right book. This prospect gives purpose and motivation to people in an otherwise seemingly purposeless existence. What is there to do for a race of librarians living within a colossal library world? It is easy to imagine life getting monotonous in Borges’s Library. Borges wrote "The Library of Babel" to encourage other people to take on the seemingly rewardless task of chasing knowledge. He challenges us to take the torch and continue the quest started by these librarians. Even though most of their searches are seem fruitless, any success would change the world.
Even though this story was written in the 1940s, the theme of vast information is especially relevant today. Consider the internet, which can be interpreted as a digital manifestation of Borges’s Library. The internet, like the Library, cannot be completely analyzed. However, it surely contains useful information. The inhabitants of the Library have few alternatives endlessly searching through stacks of books, but we in the modern world are faced with a choice. Do we devote all of our time to a quest for knowledge, or are there other goals worth living for?
“The Library of Babel” was written at an important transition phase for the genre of short story. The modern short story became established in the 19th story and it required an element of realism. By the 20th century, however, the development of motion picture and television signified the end of an era. Short stories were no longer the primary means by which narratives of suspense, action, and intrigue could be distributed to a wide audience. Short stories did not disappear, however. They occupied a new niche which Borges identified and addressed: conveying the unfilmable. The new short story was more intellectually demanding than the narratives of the past such as Canterbury Tales; it required a dedicated reader and imagination.
Borges wrote “The Library of Babel” while he was a librarian at a city library in in Buenos Aires. Perhaps he was projecting his own feelings about being a librarian into this short story. He may have felt that despite all of his work, he was achieving little in the large scheme of the world. Or, the Library could represent the fantasy world that he wanted to live in. Borges may have enjoyed his job so much that he wrote a story in which he could have no choice but to be a librarian. This viewpoint makes sense given that Borges did not leave his library position by choice. When the Peronists rose to political power, they moved him to a different position for criticizing them. Borges returned to the librarian post as director of Argentina’s National Library in 1955, which reinforces the idea that he had a passion for libraries. As a further testament to his dedication to literature, Borges continued to create works through dictation for decades since his eyesight became so bad that he could not read or write unassisted.
This context suggests that Borges was a strong supporter of literature and he wrote “The Library of Babel” to illustrate the nobility of the pursuit of knowledge. The text even offers us an answer to the question “What is literature?” or “Is all writing literature?” Even though many of the books seem like undecipherable gibberish, the narrator does not dismiss them, but instead imagines a book which could interpret the original book. In a similar way, all comprehensible works are literature, but they require the right mindset to tackle.
The fact that librarians continue to search for knowledge in a world that seems devoid of pleasure is impressive. Why would they continue to look through thousands and thousands of pages of unintelligible text? One answer is that they believe in their task and the righteousness of their quest for answers. Along this journey, they occasionally find more motivation in their imaginations. The librarians are driven by the idea that the virtually infinite Library can be ordered, by the idea that “the true story of [their] death” exists, and by the idea that these books can be found and understood. The narrator realizes that it is extremely unlikely that he himself will uncover the secrets of the library, but he harbors hopes that someone will.
“The Library of Babel” demonstrated how short stories could survive in a world with movies and television. Borges brought up issues with the infinite, motivation, and exploration of vast knowledge that are still relevant today. While the race of librarians in the story is dying out, Borges does not want the same fate for thinkers around the world.