The Library of Babel

Below is an excerpt from the book The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson. Two things commend this book in my mind. None of the 5 or so people I have recommended it to have been disappointed. Also he is able to get far more out of author Jorge Luis Borges than I can. After reading Ferguson’s remarks, I brought the Collected Fictions of Borges. Here’s what I wrote after reading them: “Read the translators notes and don’t read the book.” Here’s Ferguson’s remarks about Borges’ work.

“The twenty-first century increasingly looks like the fulfilment of Jorge Luis Borges short story ‘The Library of Babel’. In it, he imagines a library containing not only all the books ever written, but all the books that ever could be written. With an infinity of information at their disposal, men swing swiftly from euphoria to madness. Some are seized by a ‘hygienic, ascetic furor’ to ‘eliminate useless works’, leading to the ‘senseless perdition of millions of books’. Others seek the one book that is ‘the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest’ – or they seek the librarian who had read that book and is therefore ‘analogous to a god’. In some parts of the vast library, men ‘prostate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter’. In other parts, ‘epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate in to brigandage, have decimated the population.’ The twenty-first-century often seems like a vast realization of Borges’ vision” (Ferguson, Niall, The Square and the Tower, chapter 50, page, 333).

Two closing remarks: A character in Larry McMurtry’s, Streets of Laredo, is Famous Shoes. He’s a legendary Indian-tracker. He keeps a Bible but can’t ever make the tracks speak like he can animal and human ones. I think there is an increasing number of individuals who can read and understand computer code better if not in place of the written word. This may be no different than centuries before when mathematicians or musicians spoke in those languages.

Finally, I am concerned that people less and less seem to read entire books. Search engines can make out of any person, any era, or any topic the equivalent of Bartlett’s Quotations. There is a time and place for What Luther Says sorts of books and computer searching, but the person referencing them is being less than honest who doesn’t let you know that’s how he sourced them. He didn’t read the work himself. He read what someone else has found Luther said in this or that place.

At the end of the day – or beginning of any particular century – men eventually realize what Solomon does in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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