“The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

When I wrote about Borges last week, I mentioned I was often bowled over by him. “The Library of Babel” is for me another example of why. Borges returns to many of his usual themes: books and literature, infinity, words and their meaning, the universe and its comprehensibility (or lack thereof), numbers and mathematics. He plays with these subjects and arranges them into a pleasing shape with beautiful prose, but my ultimate impression is always that these stories are probably best understood in the context of his whole project, which I have yet to fully absorb.

He’s certainly a reader’s writer; what book-lover wouldn’t love a universe in the form of a massive library, containing every possible book of a specified length? And what numbers-lover wouldn’t love thinking about the permutations of hexagons that would contain the unfathomable number of volumes therein? “You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?” Ach, so wonderful; I’m gushing.

I’ve found writing about short stories in general on the difficult side, but writing about these is even harder. These are sort of vignettes. Borges gives us the Library of Babel, and it’s in a first-person narrative form so he does give us someone’s life history, but it’s the picture of this universe that dominates. What would this universe be like, and is it different in any way from our own, other than at the most superficial level?

I will head over to Caravana de recuerdos and find out what my fellow bloggers had to say on Friday. Stay tuned for “The South” this Friday to wrap up our Borges readalong.

6 comments to “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

  • I prefer “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” to “The Library of Babel,” Nicole, but I found this week’s discussion a lot more invigorating than last week’s for some reason. Go figure! That quote you highlight with an “Ach, so wonderful” is certainly worthy of gushing about, though…

  • Nicole,
    Generally, I avoid short stories, but in this case, I am grateful this is *only* a short story! It is so rich and complex – imagine how much moreso if it were novel length. As it is, I had to read and re-read it; there is so much to think about!

  • You know, I should have loved “The Library of Babel” but as I wrote it early in the dog days of my doctoral studies, it was just nightmarish for me. Literally, nightmarish. I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I was reading it and then it afflicted me at night. I had to banish Borges from my reading pile for fear of more of the same!

  • I’m looking forward to your reaction to The South, by far my favourite Borges story. The Library of Babel is not far off.

    I cannot read too much Borges at once. Behind the technical and intellectual brilliance, there is a coldness and too frequent thematic repetition.

  • “I’ve found writing about short stories in general on the difficult side”-I found this at first also but getting more comfortable now that I am reading and posting on them on a regular basis-I used to feel the same way about short stories the majority of bloggers seem to-I was not interested in them as I want a literary work that some how constructs a complete world I can move into for a while if I like-I am slowly I think coming to understand the form better now but I fully sympathize with those who are not interested in short stories-many feel a short story kind of just leaves them hanging!

  • I am just like Anthony. “I cannot read too much Borges at once.” Except I mean the exact opposite, using the same words!

    Sometimes I think I am too cold a customer, that it’s a shame that books do not have the visceral effect on me that they seem to have on some people. Then I read Colleen’s comment – pros and cons, I guess.

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