a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Library of Babel (1941)
Jorge Luis Borges
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

Contributed by Thomas Ray

Years ago, I read The Library of Babel in a volume of collected short stories by [Argentinian] Jorge Luis Borges, published under the title, Labyrinths and translated from the [Spanish]. Like many of the mystic Borges's works, it has staying power. Get past the religious metaphors, and you'll find bare-knuckle mathematics, e.g., `The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.' Sure to warm the prefrontal cortex of anyone who's ever pondered measurement demarcation problems in extrinsic and intrinsic geometry. Forget about plot -- I would think that those who enjoy books on infinity, such as the classic nonfiction of Roscza Peter, Playing with Infinity, would also enjoy this very short but dense tale.

This story has recently been reprinted in the mathematical collection Imaginary Numbers.

Contributed by Pierre Arnoux

Although there is not a word of explicit mathematics in this short story, I consider it as deeply mathematical; there is of course combinatorics (the number of books that can be written), but more than that, there is deep topology! the last sentence reads "the library is illimited and periodic": but this exactly means that the library is a three dimensional torus! It is a perfect illustration of the notion of universal covering of the torus, and I have always been tempted to continue: of course, if it is illimited, every book appears an infinite number of times, and the destruction of a particular copy of a book is unimportant. However, if it is truly periodic, people living in it are also periodic, and each time somebody destroys a book, all his copies in the library destroy at the same time alle the copies of this book, so it really exists only once! Is not this a perfect illustration of a covering? If you imagine being in the libray, you would of course be very interested to discover if you are alone of your kind, or if you have an infinite number of clones distinct from you; but you will soon understand that there is no way to know that, and that there is in fact no meaningful distinction between the 3-torus and the 3 dimensional euclidian space where everything conceivable is periodic by a 3-dimensional lattice.

Contributed by Andrew Purvis

I look at this story as one a reader an MA in English, so pardon my downgrading the relevance of the mathematics. Math, philosophy, and theology are all of equal importance in the story, and any reader may understand it without knowing any of the relevant mathematical concepts. Indeed, the mathematical foundation for the story is, as Borges notes in other works, older than the author. Having said all of that, I am working on a scholarly article that deals with higher level mathematiics than anyone else has yet ascribed to the story—concepts I can understand if not express in mathematical terms—so by way of academic secrecy (I must protect my work, after all), I will say only this for now: There is more going on here than I have ever seen anyone suggest.

Contributed by Jenni

I double majored in Math and Spanish. This was my favorite reading of my college career as it was a beautiful blend of both.

Contributed by Jean-Pierre Zurru

I have always wondered if the Babel library is also spread in time as well as in space.

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

Borges’ “The Library of Babel” was based on Kurd Lassiwitz’s “The Universal Library”, as Borges explicitly acknowledged in his 1939 essay, “The Total Library”. In fact, Borges traces the idea of a complete library all the way back to the cosmogony of Leucippus, as quoted by Aristotle in his book, “Metaphysics”. Borges mentions that the idea of a universal library was, in more recent times, alluded to, or “invented by” the German writer, Gustav Fechner, and first elaborated upon by Kurd Lasswitz. Interestingly, Lasswitz, in his story, “When the Devil Took the Professor”, has one of the characters reference Fechner...

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Works Similar to The Library of Babel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. At Ocean by Oliver Serang
  2. The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek] by Kurd Lasswitz
  3. Self-Reference ENGINE by Toh EnJoe
  4. The Lottery in Babylon [La lotería en Babilonia] by Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke
  6. Three Plates on the Table [Tres platos en la mesa] by José María Gironella
  7. Infinities by John Barrow
  8. The Book of Alephs by Inderjeet Mani
  9. The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
  10. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
Ratings for The Library of Babel:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.76/5 (13 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.81/5 (15 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Infinity,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)