This month, a reader introduces us to one of the weirder works of Jorge Luis Borges.
I was introduced to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges through my love of the late, great American fantasist, Gene Wolfe. This was the writer that inspired, to a great degree, the duplicitous, sneaky, and downright brilliant creator of Severian and Latro, two of fantasy’s most (if you’re a Wolfe reader, excuse the pun) memorable protagonists.
Borges is the type of writer that is at once easily accessible and I would argue, like Wolfe, highly confounding. His stories last only a few pages, yet they are densely packed with esoteric and philosophical information. Borges is a book nerd’s dream, an endlessly inventive perpetual motion device who reset the boundaries on what short fiction could accomplish.
The man had an encyclopedic knowledge on such diverse and wide-ranging subjects as world mythology, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Bible and the Qur’an, alternate worlds, Chinese pirates, the thugs of the New World, and the nature of infinity. Although there are many wonderful stories of his to choose from, I am of the opinion that ‘The Library of Babel’ best encapsulates his strengths as a writer; it is the Platonic ideal of a Borges story. It provides a glimpse into the man’s boundless imagination.
Borges does not mince words. Concerning his construct, he states at the very beginning of the tale: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries. In the centre of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below — one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first — identical, in fact, to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.”
An infinite library, as expansive as the universe: in essence, a bibliophile’s notion of paradise, right? It is not that simple. If a structure can hold all the books that were ever written and all the books that will be written (and can be written), it is fundamentally incompatible with our finite human lives and senses. What initially seems like paradise quickly becomes a limbo in which every variation of all books is present. The human mind and our decades-long life spans are flawed tools for delving into this labyrinth of letters. Just try to imagine an infinite (or perhaps more accurately, near-infinite) number of hexagonal alcoves comprised of five bookshelves containing 32 identically-formatted books per shelf of 410 pages. Each page contains 40 lines, with each line containing 80 black letters. “One, that the Library is so huge that any reduction by human hands must be infinitesimal. And two, that each book is unique and irreplaceable, but (since the Library is total) there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles — books that differ by no more than a single letter, or a comma.” These minute variations per volume repeat themselves almost ad infinitum, somewhat like fractals, which, to the human eye, would seem as if by chance or at random.
Borges’ idea of a near-infinite library recalls a similar concept utilised by the comic book savant, Grant Morrison. If the Borges construct is a “sphere whose exact centre is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable,” then the Morrison execution of this idea is its direct antithesis. In 2008’s Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D issue one, Superman and some of his alternate world avatars travel the multiverse via ‘shiftship’ and become stranded in a dimension known as Limbo. Searching for a means of escape, they enter the Library of Limbo, which “has only one book and no one can read it.” This book is drawn as a floating page nestled within a sphere of translucent St. Elmo’s fire. When Superman and Captain Marvel try to lift it, they come to the realisation that this ‘page’ has a super-dense astronomical mass, and they are pushed to the limits of their powers just to move it. The ‘page’ is the Library of Babel in reverse, a “book with an infinite number of pages, all occupying the same space.” In essence, these two superheroes are trying to lift infinity; trippy stuff indeed.
The various travellers to Borges’ Library (known as ‘hex pilgrims’) spend their days wandering from hex to hex, ever searching for any signal in the vast noise of indecipherable books. Naturally, this type of environment also gives rise to people who wish to contain and control it: a sect known as the Purifiers destroy entire walls of books deemed worthless, their ultimate goal to reach the fabled Crimson Hexagon, which supposedly contains books that are smaller than natural books, omnipotent and magical. Another legend that grows among the hex pilgrims is that of the Book-Man: a librarian who absorbed a volume that is a cypher and perfect compendium of all other books.
‘The Library of Babel’ is a wonderful introduction to the works of this modern-day Daedalus. Read his stories and prepare yourself to be lost in the Infinite.