Probably my favorite author of all time is Jorge Luis Borges. I say “probably” only because it’s hard to choose between him and Umberto Eco, who is sort of like “Borges Junior.” Anyway, one of my favorite stories by Borges is “The Library of Babel,” a truly mind-blowing and very short piece about an infinite library, the books you might find there and the people who inhabit it. The story was first published in 1941.

Here is a link to the full story, but here’s an excerpt.

First: The Library exists ab aeterno. 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: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.

In the space of a few short pages  Borges has managed to encapsulate truly vast concepts of infinity, knowledge, semiotics and the quest for truth. I don’t know any other writer who can do it the way he does, and “The Library of Babel” is Borges at his best.

Mathematicians, philosophers and writers have been poring over Borges’s bizarre vision since he wrote it. Umberto Eco paid homage to Borges in his amazing 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, which features a medieval library that quite resembles the one in Borges’s story. Mathematicians like the concept because it’s a fascinating thought experiment.

If you haven’t read the full story, please do. It’s very short. You might also want to see Wikipedia’s article on the story.