Deal Me In Challenge: Story #12 – “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

Deal Me In 2014 ChallengeThis 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

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.

3 of heartsThe 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.


10 thoughts on “Deal Me In Challenge: Story #12 – “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges

  1. I just finished reading the story! Very mind-boggling – in a good way. It definitely warrants re-reads, probably lots of them. This is the first Borges story I’ve read. Thanks for leading me to this story. Great post!

  2. Pingback: Deal Me In – Week 12 Wrap Up | Bibliophilopolis

  3. I haven’t read Borges since the 1980s, but I just invested in his Complete Fictions – which could rather scramble my brain if I read them all at once!!

  4. Hi Candiss,
    I’ve touched on Borges just a few times in my reading travels. My DMI Project last year included his strange story, “The Aleph,” but your choice this week seems even stranger – and better. Thanks for the link to it also, as I have already downloaded it to my kindle app.

    This week may be my favorite thus far of this year’s “public version” of DMI. So many good stories. I want to read everyone’s! 🙂

    • It is definitely abstract. I don’t think I’d necessarily recommend starting here, either, but I haven’t read enough Borges to know where I would suggest someone start. He has such a large catalog that just picking something at random could be pretty hit-or-miss, too.

      I’ve probably seen more references to and recommendations for his story The Aleph than any other, but I haven’t read it yet. It’s found in multiple collections.

      I do know that I would NOT recommend starting with the collection Brodie’s Report, which I read a few years ago and did not much enjoy. It seems weaker than other things of his I’ve read.

    • He’s certainly not for every reader. But he’s also not at all frivolous or fluffy like too much fantastical writing. There are many layers and great depth to his work, which is why his stories are classics of the genre. He’s literary with a speculative flavor, not simply fantasy, which makes him much more appealing to my own tastes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s