This week’s draw for the Deal Me In short story challenge is the 3 of Hearts – “The Library of Babel” by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. It was originally published in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths and then later was included in both Ficciones and Labyrinths. I downloaded a free and legal copy from the Internet Archive at archive.org.
Borges is known as a first-rank fabulist (or surrealist or magical realist…each term could be applied with validity.) While some of his stories I’ve read in the past had a distinct plot colored with elements of the unusual, “The Library of Babel” is more allegorical than plot-heavy. There is no dialogue and no distinct, named character to speak of. The story is steeped in metaphor and is a bit of a mind-bender.
The setting is an infinitely-vast library comprised of hexagonal rooms – I pictured it much like a literary beehive – in which can be found every conceivable variant and combination of a set of characters: 22 letters, the period, comma and space. This collection of volumes – each 410 pages with a set number of lines per page – contain everything from complete gibberish to literal history to alternate histories to myriad possible futures. Librarians wander the stacks, their function somewhere between actual librarians or curators and scholars, explorers, priests and scientists. The librarians despair of every understanding their world, and various philosophies and superstitions have arisen among them. They conceive of a core book at the (metaphorical) center of it all, as well as one who has actually read it…something of a messianic figure.
Trying to concretely explain this story would be futile, as it is largely metaphor. The Library is the Universe is the Library. The books are both nature and imagination, reality and potential, literal and figurative. They are magic and logic in one.
Borges was undoubtedly brilliant and possessed of a prodigious imagination and a mind capable of gazing in many directions at once. His writings are strange and often beautiful, but in this case they venture into the realms of both myth and math, linguistics and ontology. I won’t try to explain it, as it will suggest a dozen different meanings to each reader. If you are looking for a definite narrative plot, you will be disappointed and might be best served by choosing another, less abstract Borges story. But this quite short yet incredibly thought-provoking and idea-dense bit of philosophical writing is well worth the read and may just bring your mind back to it again and again as you find yourself considering yet another potential shade of meaning. This is truly a banquet for the open mind.