The Library of Babel

by Jorge Luis Borges
Start Free Trial

Imagine the universe as the largest library possible, holding every written work there ever was, is, and will be. What would you check out? Why?

Ultimately, the question of what you might check out of an infinite library will be based on what subjects interest you personally and what specific works you might wish to read. At the same time, however, the library's infinite nature creates added complexities worth keeping in mind. In a library such as this, it might be interesting to check out written works from long ago that have been lost, like those lost in the fire at the Library of Alexandra. It would also be interesting to look at written works that “will be,” to see what will happen in our future.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ultimately, I think the most fundamental question is this: What kind of subjects would you primarily be interested in? Someone interested in history is going to seek out a very different set of books than someone interested in philosophy or literature. Similarly, a biologist will have very different interests than...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Ultimately, I think the most fundamental question is this: What kind of subjects would you primarily be interested in? Someone interested in history is going to seek out a very different set of books than someone interested in philosophy or literature. Similarly, a biologist will have very different interests than an astrophysicist.

However, even here, I think this idea of an infinite library (as imagined by Borges) is actually more fiendishly complex than it might originally seem. Consider, for example, the case of classical literature and the wide array of ancient texts that have been lost over time. I can imagine that a classics scholar would be gleeful at the thought of finding long-lost works by dramatists such as Aeschylus and Sophocles or philosophers such as Aristotle. Here, however, the question must be asked: If there is truly an infinite number of works, not all of these lost texts will actually be genuine, and who is to say which texts were actually written by the authors in question, and which ones are nothing more than inventions of the library's infinite nature?

At the same time, there are other, even more abstract topics that might hypothetically be available for study: perhaps you might uncover a treatise providing an irrefutable explanation of the meaning of life, for example, or a flawless proof or disproof of God. (And how would you make sense of the very real probability of there existing both a flawless proof and a flawless disproof simultaneously with one another?) You might find histories of futures that have not yet come to pass. In practice, the possibilities are endless.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is interesting to note that this prompt says that the library “contains every written work that ever was.” This suggests that the library might contain written works that are currently lost, like scrolls that were lost in the fire at the Library of Alexandria. It would be fascinating to examine those written works because they might provide an insight into lost information about history. It is also interesting to consider the possibility of checking out written works that “will be.” This suggests that this library gives us a glimpse at the future. It might be interesting to look at history books from the future, so we can learn what will happen to us in our lifetime and what will happen beyond our lifetime. You could also reflect on this question in terms of your own personal interests. For example, I am quite interested in the history of the Italian Renaissance. If I had access to such a library, I would be drawn to texts from this era and about this era to see what new things I can learn about it.

In a way, this imaginary library represents the universe we live in. Especially living in the digital age we are in today, we do have access to a seemingly endless amount of information. Reflecting on a question like this makes us realize that we could in fact check out some of the information that we would be drawn to in such a library.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on