A couple weeks ago, after reading an article about it, I read a compelling short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “The Library of Babel.” Borges created an unnamed narrator who describes “The universe (which others call the Library)” in terms of a physical structure that contains books. Inside the books are lines of letters. In some books, the letters form words and make sense, but in most of the books, they don’t. And then there are the books with unrecognizable symbols. In just two pages, Borges haunted me and my mind with this character and this universe.
I read the story on a city bus after an exhausting day at the office. It startled me. Borges’ library reminded me of the internet, of Google’s desire to create an online library that contains every book ever published, and of babbling technology. His library is no technological wonder, either. And yet, it made me think of all the technology that we have now. Does it truly help us communicate better or just more?
Technology sucks the time out of a writer’s life. It’s supposed to help, of course, but for every little bit of help it provides, it consumes 100 times more in time. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy social networking online, reading and sending e-mails, and having instant chats with friends. But there needs to be a boundary between work and play. Technology blurs that boundary…quite effectively at times. And it contributes to all those books of nonsense in Borges’ story.
In the first sentence, Borges says “The universe (which others call the Library)” which then makes the title “The Universe of Babel.” Why “Babel”?
That’s a biblical reference which has two sides to it in this context. It refers to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Then it includes the Bible and its many translations and variations as one of the books in Borges’ Library. Babel comes from the Hebrew word balal which means to confound or confuse. In the biblical story, God looks down to earth and sees a united humanity speaking one language — he decides to confound humanity and shatters the one language into many. Humanity scatters and speaks many languages, some with totally different alphabets. Borges’ Library of Babel, or Universe of Babel, is the story of humanity.
Technology follows in Babel’s footsteps, I think, with the capacity to create confusion and to confound, to help humanity and to consume time. Is technology a Library of Babel? Or just part of the one Borges has described? As part of the story of humanity, it must be in the Library along with everything else.
I’m still thinking about this short story, and will probably continue to think about it for a long time. It’s the first short story by Borges that I’ve read. I doubt it will be the last…..
It may be worth noting here that Borges was blind, and he wrote during a time of limited technology, when humanity had more time to play and to dream, and to actually have time to wonder about “meaning” and “purpose,” to read voraciously and to write wonderful, meaningful stories like this one.