(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The setting of “The Library of Babel” is not only the story’s most important characteristic, it is, in a way, everything. Much of the narrative consists of descriptions of an imaginary library that is so large that no one has seen the top, bottom, or end of it. It is so old that the recorded history of its librarians stretches back for many centuries and still one cannot account for the library itself or for its architects. It houses so many books that the most accepted explanation for its collection is that it contains all possible books; that is, it contains all the infinite variations on every book whose pages could be generated by random strings of letters, words, or phrases without duplication. The narrator of the story asserts that, “like all men of the Library,” he traveled in his youth, journeying from cubicle to cubicle searching for a book or “a catalogue of catalogues” that might explain where he was and why he was there. He anticipates dying without finding that knowledge, only “a few leagues from” the bookshelves by “which I was born.” “Once dead there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the central banister of the vast building,” he claims; “my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air. . . . My body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.”

The story turns on the narrator’s and the librarians’ attempts to make sense of the infinite building in which they find themselves, a building that has been neatly divided into hexagonal rooms...

(The entire section is 638 words.)