Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, 1563, The Tower of Babel, Collection of Emperor Rudolf II, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna [Public Domain] via Wikimedia
In just seven pages of text, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges raises profound questions about the meaning and value of knowledge in his 1941 essay, “The Library of Babel”: the timelessness of knowledge, its organization, the identity of its stewards and its accessibility. Two different groups of Books@Work participants recently tackled this story, considering the implications of Borges’ vision for both the past and present, engaging in spirited debate about the worthiness of the modern Internet as a proxy for Borges’ library, and deciphering the mathematical, linguistic and historical contexts and theories that gave rise to Borges’ work.
In this installment of “A Text at Work” we invite you to read Borges’ essay as well, available here. In “The Library of Babel” Borges describes an enduring and perhaps infinite repository of books, outlasting the species that created it. In Borges’ vision, the species reacts with “unbridled joy” when it is announced that the library houses all books of all time – both those that have been written, those that will be written and those that are merely possible as combinations of letters. That joy turns to deadly conflict and insanity as individuals struggle with one another to read the books that contain prophecies of the future.
Borges’ own history offers insight into the text. Borges worked as a librarian at times (including as the director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires after the publication of this text). In addition, his anti-fascist stance as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s may play into the development of his story. Completely blind by middle age, Borges explores, in much of his work, the senses we use to perceive and make sense of knowledge.
Late in his life, Borges began a publisher’s assignment to list 100 titles that would appear as the most significant works in his personal library, completing 74 entries before his death in 1988. Those titles appear idiosyncratic at first, but offer an expansive view of what his library should contain, including Wilde, Flaubert, Kierkegaard and Virgil. Interestingly, Borges’ list excludes female authors, inviting this complement to his original list. Borges’ list and “The Library of Babel,” taken together, raise interesting questions about how and why we think about the value of different works, questions we consider nearly every day at Books@Work.
Professor Peter Haas, the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies and the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Case Western Reserve University posed the following questions to a group of Books@Work participants. We invite you, too, to consider these questions as you read Borges’ tale:
- At the end of the story, Borges notes that despite the infinite vastness of the library and its apparent disorder, he is optimistic. Do you share his optimism?
- Some have compared the “World Wide Web” of the internet to the Borgesian library. Does this suggest that the availability of infinitely expanding information mean that actual knowledge is becoming more and more inaccessible?
- Is Borges saying that the actual answers to all our questions are out there, but we can never find them?
Please join the conversation below! We want to hear your thoughts on this remarkable “Text at Work!”