I hope everyone has the opportunity at some point to stumble upon a job so well-suited for them, it seems pre-destined.
That’s honestly how I feel teaching my academic seminars every weekend. I get paid to talk about intellectual ideas, literature, and writing. Every week feels like leading a book club.
I just began a new year with a new batch of incredibly high-performing and intelligent Chinese teenagers—many living in Beijing, some in Hong Kong, and some at boarding schools in the U.S and Canada. I’m already really jazzed to see how these students develop their ability to digest and discuss topics and articles that are sometimes challenging for me.
Our seminar on Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel was one of these challenging seminars.
Jorge Luis Borges
If you don’t know much about Borges, he’s one of the most celebrated Argentine (and South American) writers. He is famous for writing philosophical short stories in the mid-20th century, sometimes credited with helping to form the beginnings of magical realism.
Funny enough, I didn’t manage to read his renowned short-story collections Ficciones (Fictions) until after I left Argentina. And despite priding myself on being quite literary and an intellectual, I was totally lost during my first reading.
But this is part of the fun, especially because a central theme within the stories of Ficcionies is the labyrinth. Maybe getting lost within the pages is what makes literature so enticing.
So when I saw The Library of Babel would be the topic for my 10th-grade seminar, I had a simultaneous sense of dread and excitement.
Dread because The Library of Babel is not an easy short story; excitement because it is full of philosophical conundrums, rich for consideration. This story would overwhelm and challenge many students. But if I could guide them just right, it might open them up to beautiful philosophical meanderings.
The Library of Babel
The Library of Babel follows the narration of an unnamed librarian living in an infinite library. Much of the short story is a description of this library. There’s the hexagonal, ever-expanding nature of the building and the dim lighting shielding the readers in darkness as they attempt to read through the infinite number of books. There’s the struggle with different languages and indecipherable symbols and the hope some sort of all-encompassing catalog of books exists, compiling all the knowledge in one source.
In many ways, this story plays with The Cosmological Principle in science. It also references ideas within linguistics, philosophy, and religion. In addition to the reference to the tower of babel, the story contains “the purifiers” who destroy any books they feel are “worthless.” There’s also “the book man,” a rumored librarian who discovered the cyclical catalog of all the books within the library. This cyclical book is considered to be God.
Nothing exists outside the library. This means the infinite contents of the library and the people within are all hoping to understand the library, without being able to exit and look at it from the outside in. An NPR article poses the conundrum, “Like a fish that wants to understand the totality of the oceans, the librarians try in vain to decipher the mysteries of their world, unaware that all they can acquire is a partial knowledge of reality.”
In high school, all I wanted was to eat up every word of every subject. I felt as if connecting the dots between literature and art and calculus could somehow lead me to some much better conception of the universe, some sort of enlightenment, or (as my students love to write about):
At work, I read so many essays from high schoolers about their quest for truth. They write as if “the truth” is some tangible, concrete item to be grasped if you can only just dig a bit deeper, know a bit more, work a bit harder. They are motivated by their quest for this truth.
It’s a beautiful sentiment to see in students because it is often carrying with it passion, inspiration, and a thirst for knowledge.
But it can be sometimes hard to explain to students that “truth” is something quite elusive. What is thetruth?
While some may speak of religious truth, philosophical truisms, or scientific facts, these are largely fluctuating and evolving over time.
Like the readers in The Library of Babel, perhaps the best we can do is keep reading in the dimly lit library, grasping the little bits of knowledge illuminated by the little bits of light to which we have access.