Reader Redux: Building up the ‘Library of Babel’

People keep asking me if I like bees.

I don’t—I’m deeply terrified of their harmless, fuzzy little bodies—but I have what looks like a honeycomb tattooed on my right shoulder.

As a disclaimer, I’m not cool or hip, nor am I trying to sound like I am. I don’t consider myself An Individual because I paid a lovely bearded man named Aaron to scratch things into my skin. I am not trying to assure anyone that I am free-spirited or artistic. I am trying to explain that I was willing to sit shirtless on an uncomfortable pleather chair for two hours while Aaron cheerfully gouged out bits of my flesh with a needle because of a story.

It’s one of many in “Labyrinths,” a collection of essays, short stories, and poems by Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian writer born at the tail end of the 19th century. I’m not sure if I could call “The Library of Babel” my favorite work in the anthology since they’re all stunning, but it’s the one I’ve reread the most times and the one that inspired my tattoo.

The narrator begins with a description of his library, his universe: composed of a vast but finite number of interlocking hexagonal rooms and containing a vast but finite number of books that have the same number of pages, and the same number of words on each page. The library, he explains, contains every possible combination of letters and spaces that can fit into that number of pages. It follows, then, that within this library are all of Shakespeare’s works, novels that are not yet written, the true origins of the earth, the fan-fictions for E.L. James’ fan-fiction, repetitions of the lyrics to “Call Me Maybe” with Freudian quotes inserted between verses.

The point, however, is that our librarian narrator knows that his life story is written out, and his existence explained, in one of these volumes. The difference between him and the other librarians spread out throughout the hexagons is that he is not searching for his book, while the others drive themselves mad searching for theirs. Instead, he prays that some librarian at some point finds the volume that validates the entire universe: “I pray to the unknown gods that a man—just one, even though it were thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let Heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified.”

My interpretation of the story may be overly simplistic. I don’t pretend to fully understand the fictional encyclopedias or textual mazes Borges presents in “Labyrinths;” indeed, many of his stories are meant to trick the reader. If you buy into everything Borges tells you, Borges wins.

I’ve probably lost to Borges. I find it very difficult to maintain a critical distance from his stories because I find them hugely comforting. At the risk of sounding cliché, I’ve often turned to reading when I’m having a hard time dealing with the real world, and I’ve often opted to read something out of “Labyrinths.” It’s not necessarily because Borges’ stories offer an escape from reality. Borges simply tries to explain reality using a certain amount of magical realism. In reading “The Library of Babel,” I can feel reassurance in the idea that even if the justification of our lives is never explicitly revealed to us, it still very much exists in one of those symbolic hexagonal rooms.

There are many pieces in “Labyrinths” worth mentioning, but “The Library of Babel” is the one that has literally made the greatest impression on me. I also can’t help but love the personal fixations Borges sneaks into the story: his fear of mirrors and reflections, his preoccupation with individual validation, and his love for math and geometry. He actually chose hexagons knowing that they are the only shape that can tessellate to infinity—bees weren’t very significant to him. His favorite animal was the tiger.

—Staff writer Natalie T. Chang can be reached at nataliechang@college.harvard.edu.

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