Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Library of Babel” is typical of Borges’s style. It has little plot, little characterization, and little conflict. It presents, rather, an intellectual challenge or puzzle to the reader. Borges often aims at getting his readers curious about a novel idea and then urging them to reevaluate their own experiences and conceptions with a fresh new perspective. Frequently, he avoids complex characterizations and plots to put more emphasis on these new ideas, moving his stories along with a prose style borrowed from the essay form. He takes his bizarre ideas and then underplays them with a spare, matter-of-fact style that makes them seem more plausible. Like many of his stories, “The Library of Babel” has a mock scholarly tone that belies its sensational and fantastic conceptions. The narrator uses a calm, dispassionate voice, which is dry, but occasionally witty. Such a tone creates the impression of a monograph hidden in some obscure scholarly journal. The narrator summarizes the second axiom of what is known about the library, saying “the number of orthographic symbols is twenty-five. . . . This bit of evidence permitted the formulation, three hundred years ago, of a general theory of the Library.” The passage even includes a mock footnote that purports to theorize about why precisely twenty-five letters were enough to form all the different words in the library’s infinite collection of books.

This essay style, stripped of vivid description and running commentaries about the interior states of characters’ minds, lets Borges cover a wide range of ideas quickly. It also jostles many readers’ prior experiences with reading literature: Most readers do not anticipate that fiction will be presented as fact.