Jorge Luis Borges and the Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges - one of the most important figures of 20th century literature

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), The Paradise according to Borges, by Gabriel Caprav [1]

On August 24, 1899, the famous Argentine writer and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, who is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, was born in Buenos Aires. He is considered to be one of the most important figure in Spanish-language literature since Cervantes. Most famous in the English speaking world for his short stories and fictive essays, Borges was also a poet, critic, translator and man of letters.

In 1914 Borges’ family moved to Switzerland where he attended school, receiving his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918. During these years, the Borges family travelled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. One of the reasons, why Borges himself was fluent in several languages. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. With his vision beginning to fade in his early thirties and unable to support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer and a librarian. By the late 1950s, he had become completely blind. Nevertheless, in 1955 he was appointed director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first ever Prix International, sharing the award with Samuel Beckett. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe.

Jorge Luis Borges’ intellectually most challenging subject (as well as from the viewpoint of a computer scientist or mathematician) was his concept of the ‘Library of Babel‘, where he describes a world, consisting of an endless library containing all possible books that can be written with all combinations of the 24 letters of the alphabet [2]. All the countless books stand in shelfs ordered in hexagonal rooms one after the other in a 3-dimensional layout. Unfortunately, most of the books only contain crap, i.e. letters that don’t make sense, simply because of all possible letter combinations only a few make sense and form a valid word. The librarians of this library are constantly looking for books with readable and sense-making content. And overall, because this library should contain every conceivable book, they foremost look for the one book that explains the meaning of the library and why it exists…. An incredible story you must read!

Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, something which continually distressed him. He was one of several distinguished authors who never received this honor. It is speculated that Borges did not receive the award because of his conservative political views. Borges commented

Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.

BTW, did you know that Borges was also the referred to by Umberto Eco in his novel ‘The Name of the Rose‘, when he created the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos as the villain in his story?[3]
At yovisto, you might watch a video lecture of Alberto Manguel, who was a secretary to Borges for many years, talking about ‘Borges and the Impossibility of writing‘.

References and further Reading:


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