Jorge Luis Borges: The Library of Babel
Mirrored from the fabulous web site:
Note: The original was poorly formated, your esteemed
editor (moi) has taken the libertie of adjusting
the text for making it easier to perform/read.
For the authoritative texts one should refer to Weinstein's
(tips towel to hoopy translator of Mr. B.)
By this art you may contemplate the variations
of the 23 letters...
The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sect. II, mem. IV
The universe (which others call the Library)
is composed of an indefinite and perhaps
infinite number of hexagonal galleries,
with vast air shafts between, surrounded by
very low railings.
From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably,
the upper and lower floors. The distribution of
the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves,
five long shelves per side, cover all the sides
except two; their height, which is the distance
from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that
of a normal bookcase.
One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway
which opens onto another gallery, identical to the
first and to all the rest.
To the left and right of the hallway there are
two very small closets. In the first, one may
sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's
fecal necessities. Also through here passes a
spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and
soars upwards to remote distances.
In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully
duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer
from this mirror that the Library is not infinite
(if it were, why this illusory duplication?);
I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces
represent and promise the infinite ...
Light is provided by some spherical fruit which
bear the name of lamps. There are two,
transversally placed, in each hexagon.
The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.
Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in
my youth; I have wandered in search of a book,
perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that
my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am
preparing to die just a few leagues from the
hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead,
there will be no lack of pious hands to throw
me over the railing; my grave will be the
fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly
and decay and dissolve in the wind generated
by the fall, which is infinite.
I say that the Library is unending. The idealists
argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary
from of absolute space or, at least, of our
intuition of space.
They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room
(The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals
to them a circular chamber containing
a great circular book,
whose spine is continuous
and which follows the complete circle of the walls;
but their testimony is suspect;
their words, obscure.
This cyclical book is God.)
Let it suffice now for me to repeat the
classic dictum: The Library is a sphere
whose exact center is any one of its
hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.
There are five shelves for each of the
hexagon's walls; each shelf contains thirty-five
books of uniform format; each book is of
four hundred and ten pages; each page, of
forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters
which are black in color. There are also
letters on the spine of each book; these
letters do not indicate or prefigure what
the pages will say.
I know that this incoherence at one time
seemed mysterious. Before summarizing the
solution (whose discovery, in spite of its
tragic projections, is perhaps the capital
fact in history) I wish to recall a few axioms.
First: The Library exists ab aeterno. [from/before eternity;
ie, from the very beginning]
This truth, whose immediate corollary is the
future eternity of the world, cannot be placed
in doubt by any reasonable mind.
Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the
product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi;
the universe, with its elegant endowment
of shelves, of enigmatical volumes,
of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler
and latrines for the seated librarian,
can only be the work of a god.
To perceive the distance between the
divine and the human, it is enough
to compare these crude wavering symbols
which my fallible hand scrawls
on the cover of a book,
with the organic letters inside:
Second: The orthographical symbols are twenty-five
in number. [Note 1]
This finding made it possible, three hundred years
ago, to formulate a general theory of the
Library and solve satisfactorily the problem
which no conjecture had deciphered:
the formless and chaotic nature of almost
all the books.
One which my father saw in a hexagon on
circuit fifteen ninety-four was made
up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated
from the first line to the last.
Another (very much consulted in this area)
is a mere labyrinth of letters, but the
next-to-last page says "Oh time thy pyramids".
This much is already known: for every
sensible line of straightforward statement,
there are leagues of senseless cacophonies,
verbal jumbles and incoherences.
(I know of an uncouth region whose librarians
repudiate the vain and superstitious custom
of finding a meaning in books and equate
it with that of finding a meaning in dreams
or in the chaotic lines of one's palm ...
They admit that the inventors of this writing
imitated the twenty-five natural symbols,
but maintain that this application is accidental
and that the books signify nothing in themselves.
This dictum, we shall see, is not entirely fallacious.)
For a long time it was believed that these
impenetrable books corresponded to past or
It is true that the most ancient men, the first librarians,
used a language quite different from the one we now speak;
it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is
dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is
All this, I repeat, is true, but four hundred and ten
pages of inalterable MCV's cannot correspond to any
language, no matter how dialectical or rudimentary it
Some insinuated that each letter could influence the
following one and that the value of MCV in the third
line of page 71 was not the one the same series may
have in another position on another page, but this
vague thesis did not prevail.
Others thought of cryptographs; generally, this
conjecture has been accepted, though not in the
sense in which it was formulated by its originators.
Five hundred years ago, the chief of an upper
hexagon  came upon a book as confusing as
the others, but which had nearly two pages of
He showed his find to a wandering decoder who
told him the lines were written in Portuguese;
others said they were Yiddish.
Within a century, the language was established:
a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani,
with classical Arabian inflections.
The content was also deciphered: some notions
of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples
of variations with unlimited repetition.
These examples made it possible for a librarian
of genius to discover the fundamental law of
This thinker observed that all the books,
no matter how diverse they might be, are
made up of the same elements: the space,
the period, the comma, the twenty-two
letters of the alphabet.
He also alleged a fact which travelers
have confirmed: In the vast Library
there are no two identical books.
From these two incontrovertible premises
he deduced that the Library is total and
that its shelves register all the possible
combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical
symbols (a number which, though extremely vast,
is not infinite):
the minutely detailed history
of the future,
the archangels' autobiographies,
the faithful catalogues of the Library,
thousands and thousands of false catalogues,
the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues,
the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue,
the Gnostic gospel of Basilides,
the commentary on that gospel,
the commentary on the commentary on that gospel,
the true story of your death,
the translation of every book in all languages,
the interpolations of every book in all books.
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained
all books, the first impression was one of
All men felt themselves to be the masters of an
intact and secret treasure.
There was no personal or world problem whose
eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon.
The universe was justified,
the universe suddenly usurped
the unlimited dimensions of hope.
At that time a great deal was said about the
Vindications: books of apology and prophecy
which vindicated for all time the acts
of every man in the universe
and retained prodigious arcana
for his future.
Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet
native hexagons and rushed up the stairways,
urged on by the vain intention of finding
These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors,
proferred dark curses,
strangled each other on the divine stairways,
flung the deceptive books into the air shafts,
met their death cast down in a similar
fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions.
Others went mad ... The Vindications exist
(I have seen two which refer to persons
of the future, to persons who are perhaps
but the searchers did not remember that
the possibility of a man's finding his
or some treacherous variation thereof,
can be computed as zero.
At that time it was also hoped that a
clarification of humanity's basic mysteries
-- the origin of the Library and of time --
might be found.
It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries
could be explained in words: if the language
of philosophers is not sufficient,
the multiform Library will have produced
the unprecedented language required,
with its vocabularies and grammars.
For four centuries now men have
exhausted the hexagons ...
There are official searchers,
I have seen them in the performance
of their function:
they always arrive extremely tired
from their journeys;
they speak of a broken stairway which
almost killed them;
they talk with the librarian of galleries
sometimes they pick up the nearest
volume and leaf through it,
looking for infamous words.
Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.
As was natural, this inordinate hope was
followed by an excessive depression.
The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held
precious books and that these precious books were
inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.
A blasphemous sect suggested that the searches
should cease and that all men should juggle letters
and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable
gift of chance, these canonical books.
The authorities were obliged to issue severe orders.
The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen
old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in
the latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden
dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.
Others, inversely, believed that it was fundamental
to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons,
showed credentials which were not always false, leafed
through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole
shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the
senseless perdition of millions of books.
Their name is execrated, but those who deplore the
``treasures'' destroyed by this frenzy neglect two
One: the Library is so enormous that any reduction
of human origin is infinitesimal.
The other: every copy is unique, irreplaceable, but
(since the Library is total) there are
always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles:
works which differ only in a letter or a comma.
Counter to general opinion, I venture to suppose that
the consequences of the Purifiers' depredations have
been exaggerated by the horror these fanatics produced.
They were urged on by the delirium of trying to reach
the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format
is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and
We also know of another superstition of that time:
that of the Man of the Book.
On some shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there
must exist a book which is the formula and perfect
compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone
through it and he is analogous to a god.
In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote
functionary's cult still persist. Many wandered in
search of Him.
For a century they have exhausted in vain the most
varied areas. How could one locate the venerated and
secret hexagon which housed Him?
Someone proposed a regressive method: To locate
book A, consult first book B which indicates A's
position; to locate book B, consult first a book C,
and so on to infinity ...
In adventures such as these, I have squandered and
wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me
that there is a total book on some shelf of the
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.
The impious maintain that nonsense is normal
in the Library and that the reasonable
(and even humble and pure coherence) is an
almost miraculous exception. They speak
(I know) of the ``feverish Library whose
chance volumes are constantly in danger of
changing into others and affirm, negate and
confuse everything like a delirious divinity.''
These words, which not only denounce the
disorder but exemplify it as well, notoriously
prove their authors' abominable taste and desperate
ignorance. In truth, the Library includes all
verbal structures, all variations permitted by
the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but
not a single example of absolute nonsense.
It is useless to observe that the best volume
of the many hexagons under my administration
is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another
The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö.
These phrases, at first glance incoherent,
can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical
or allegorical manner; such a justification
is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures
in the Library.
I cannot combine some characters
which the divine Library has not foreseen and which
in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible
meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not
filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in
one of these languages, the powerful name of a god.
To speak is to fall into tautology. This wordy and
useless epistle already exists in one of the thirty
volumes of the five shelves of one of the innumerable
hexagons -- and its refutation as well.
(An n number of possible languages use the same
vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows
the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system
of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid
or anything else, and these seven words which define
it have another value.
You who read me, are You sure of understanding my
The methodical task of writing distracts me from
the present state of men. The certitude that everything
has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.
I know of districts in which the young men prostrate
themselves before books and kiss their pages in a
barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher
a single letter. Epidemics, heretical conflicts,
peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into
banditry, have decimated the population.
I believe I have mentioned suicides, more and more
frequent with the years. Perhaps my old age and
fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human
species -- the unique species -- is about to be
extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated,
solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with
precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.
I have just written the word ``infinite.'' I have not
interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit;
I say that it is not illogical to think that the world
Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in
remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons
can conceivably come to an end -- which is absurd.
Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that
the possible number of books does have such a limit.
I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient
The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal
traveler were to cross it in any direction, after
centuries he would see that the same volumes were
repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated,
would be an order: the Order).
My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope. 
Translated by J.E.I.
1 The original manuscript does not contain digits
or capital letters. The punctuation has been
limited to the comma and the period. These
two signs, the space and the twenty-two letters
of the alphabet are the twenty-five symbols
considered sufficient by this unknown author.
2 Before, there was a man for every three hexagons.
Suicide and pulmonary diseases have destroyed that
proportion. A memory of unspeakable melancholy: at
times I have traveled for many nights through
corridors and along polished stairways without
finding a single librarian.
3 I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for
it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For
example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt
there are books which discuss and negate and
demonstrate this possibility and others whose
structure corresponds to that of a ladder.
4 Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this
vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a
single volume would be sufficient, a volume of
ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point
type, containing an infinite number if infinitely
thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century,
Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the
superimposition of an infinite number of planes.)
The handling of this silky vade mecum would not
be convenient: each apparent page would unfold
into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle
page would have no reverse.
[Al's notes from his original site (presumed destroyed)]
If you liked this, you should consider checking
out some of the stuff over at The Universe of
Discourse, such as The Zahir , Luis Briceno y
Confuerde de la Juemos: A Look Back and Adolfo
Bioy Cassares and the Real World.
Also of possible interest would be the
HyperDiscordia Reading Room.
Jump to: Babel Fish