hexagons: why?

I suppose, dear blog reader, that you might be wondering why hexagons are so prevalent in The Library of Babel. I am still curious myself. They are the building blocks for the whole library, the construction of the universe. Perhaps because they tesselate endlessly, perhaps for no other reason than a random choice. The ‘galleries’ of the Library, containing all of the books in the universe, are hexagonal in shape:

“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.”

-Jorge Luis Borges

Imagining what shape this library must take is quite mind boggling, and seemingly impossible, or unimaginable (hence the title of my project: the infinite unimaginable). Some however – architects, engineers, mathematicians (Hayes 2009), those unable to leave enigmas unexplored – have devoted time to figuring out the structure, and even, indeed, the air circulation and location of load bearing pillars!


Within the Library, there is talk of a “the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical…” Borges’ ‘universe library’ is interesting in its absolute confusion. I was musing yesterday on the title’s inclusion of ‘Babel’ and yet the fact is that the word cannot be found anywhere within the story… In another short story, Borges’ protagonist asks:

In a riddle whose answer is time, what word is prohibited?’

-The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges. JL

In a story about _____________ what word is prohibited? The library contains all the books and languages and stories about the whole universe – if anything can be said or imagined, it is and must be contained in the library. And yet there is a stark lack of literary content – no quotes from books save to point out the impervious nature of the letters (or orthographic symbols) contained within. The letters and books appear to obstruct meaning, rather than communicate it. (Is the story about Babel? language? stories?…). As Lisa Block de Behar points out, perhaps the significant literary lack of the library can be justified in a similar way. Borges seems more concerned with the architecture and structure of the library than the books it contains.

by Karl Kempf

The origin of the library is unknown, as is its creator, as is the purpose of the ‘librarians’ existence (Piper, P. 2001). How can the author speak of hope? Is this the allusion to the human condition, scattered at Babel and unable to understand the universe we live in, language obscuring rather than revealing “humanities basic mysteries – the origin of the Library and of time” (Borges, 1959).


Block de Behar, L. 2001, The Place of the Library, Latin American Literary Review, Jul-Dec 2001, 29:58,  pp. 55-72.

Hayes, B. Books-A-Million (‘The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel’), American Scientist, 97:1, Jan-Feb 2009, p.78-79, book review.

Piper, P. 2001, ‘For Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise Was Not a Garden but a Library’, American Libraries, August 2001, pp.56-58.




the challenging question:

“Is it necessary that the text be readable and accessible?”

(that moment that comes after, while reading difficult articles and critiques, when you realise that one text has more credibility than the other, in academic circles)


to which I say:

“Is it necessary that the text be highbrow, critically acclaimed and/or difficult in order to be valuable and challenging?”