Library of Babel

Illustration, Process


I created an pop-up representation of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel (1941).


The Library of Babel is a fictional universe conceived as a vast library of interwoven hexagonal rooms. Each room contains the bare necessities for sustaining life and four walls of bookshelves. The contents of these books are believed to contain every permutation of 23 characters. Most of the books are gibberish, but occasionally a word, sentence, or even page of coherent text can be found. In this all too precarious existence, the inhabitants of the universe assign meaning to the chaotic order that surrounds them. Some are driven mad, believing that one book exists that provides the master key to the entire library, a voice of god. The story is testament to the dubious human experience and efforts to find our purpose.


The first page and cover illustration plays with finding meaning within a coded universe. The letters are indecipherable until the viewer pulls the tab right, revealing the hidden title and question “You who read me. Are you sure of understanding my language?”


By this art you may contemplate the variations of the 23 letters…

“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. ….These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner….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. (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 language?)”


The centerfold opens and expands to a hexagonal lattice, recreating the fabric of the universe.


 The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.

Illustrated Text:

“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 is inconceivable. (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”


I found a site that takes to heart Borges’ imaginary universe and strives to re-create the VIRTUAL LIBRARY online. I recommend excavating the library after reading the short story.

Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite authors, for his blend of philosophy, science and imagination. If you would like to check out more of his writing, I highly recommend Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges


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