How a Book is a Ladder

In one of the core courses of the program, “Public Texts I,” we were each told to do a case study.  Eric opted for a creative reading of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel.”

Written by: Eric Lehman

Jorge Luis Borges’ piece on “The Library of Babel” states the following in the third notation:  

I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist.  Only the impossible is excluded.  For example:  no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a ladder.  

What you are about to read is one of those books.


1. The easiest and most common way to understand the book as a ladder is to stand on one.
Many a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary have been used to gain a little bit more height to
liberate a box of corn flakes from the top pantry shelf.

Don’t Try this at Home

2. A book is a great many things including, but not limited to, a doorstop, a paperweight, a
stool, a writing desk, a hammer, a flyswatter, and a boomerang.  Wordsworth, in the 1805
prelude of “Dream of an Arab” noted that a book is also a shell and a stone.

3. Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself with stones in her pocket, or
expanding on Wordsworth’s observations, she committed suicide by drowning herself
with books in her pocket.  This proves that although a book is a great many things, it is
not a life-preserver.

Short-Term, Baby, Short-Term

4. A book exists in a material and finite space.  As such, they can be acquired, collected and
archived. Walter Benjamin observes in his essay “Unpacking My Library” the book
collector has “…a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional,
utilitarian value — that is, their usefulness — but studies them as the scene, the stage,
and their fate.”   Although likely Benjamin was talking about the content of a book
and not its ladder qualities, he does recognize that a book collector is someone who has a
tie to the material object itself.

5. The “books” in the Library of Babel are neither acquired, collected nor archived.  They
simply exist ab aeterno — eternally and out of time.  Books or ladders have publishing
dates and dates of manufacture.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the Library does not
house books, but only digital representation of texts.

6. A digital copy of a book, or an e-book, is not a ladder as one cannot stand on it.
Therefore, logically speaking, it is also not a book.  E-readers and tablets can be used as
ladders, however this is not recommended due to electrical shock and breakage.

7. Robert Darnton notes in his paper “Library of the New Age” “Even if the digitized
image on the computer screen is accurate, it will fail to capture crucial aspects of a book.
For example, size.”  The “books” in the Library are uniform. Since the texts in the
Library have no relative size, it can be argued that they have no size at all.  Size is a
manifestation of physical space and therefore the texts in the Library of Babel cannot
exist in a material form.

8. Books or ladders are not meant to exist forever.  They are both physical and
metaphysical.  As Wittgenstein observes in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “he who
understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through
them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has
climbed up on it).”  By running up an expensive bill at the Home Hardware, Wittgenstein
recognizes that these objects (books or ladders) are used and preserved only for a limited

9. If the Library of Babel itself is infinite and out of time, it cannot be physical.  It then must
exist someplace immaterial like Hollywood.

An Accurate Rendition of the Library of Babel. Location: Hollywood, Ca.

10. Furthermore, Borges argues that heaven (in one being) and hell (in his own experience)
can be found in the Library [Editor’s note: depends on the librarian on shift].  The Library has been both an “extravagant joy” and a “deep depression.”  It is at first a utopia, and then a dystopia. Foucault argues of utopias have no real space, and it is logical that the same can be said for dystopias.  Therefore, the Library
must exist in a virtual space.

11. Given that the Library is virtual, the hexagons are not rooms as we understand them
physically, but likely referring to the use of hexadecimal code for programming.  These
“rooms” have been created not to form an actual ‘real’ space (a combination of absolute
and relative space) but simply an “absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space.”

Editor’s Note:  Hey, hey now.  Above: excellent point.  Perhaps Borges was predicting something the future with this metaphor?

12. To borrow from Catherine Hobbs’ terminology in “The Character of Personal Archives:
Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals”, the texts that are contained in the
Library of Babel are a “concentration of information,” which are normally associated
with organizational records, and not an “expression of character,” which are common
among personal archives.  This leads one to believe that the texts in the Library of Babel
belong to the area of corporate interest rather than that of personal or everyday value.

13. Corporate interest is historically linked to the destruction of material texts. As seen
through the history of converting newspapers into microform, the original is destroyed,
leaving the researcher and the libraries reliant on the microform monopoly Bell and
Howell/UMI for their access to a back catalog (Baker 18).  It would seem that the
Purifiers in the Library of Babel who “eliminate useless works”  are also be working on
the side of economic, and not public, interest.

14. Speaking of economic interest, the corporate ladder is not a ladder nor is it a book.
“Corporate ladder” is a misnomer and an illusion.  A more suitable name for this
preoccupation would be a corporate merry-go-round (in actuality) or a corporate
magnetic hill (in appearance).

15. Finally, a forewarning.  In future, it may be necessary to hide books from corporations in
order to preserve them. Those interested on how to hide a book should reference Umberto
Eco’s “How to Organize a Public Library.”

Note:  “How a Book is a Ladder” was found between pages 333 and 334 of book
resapf located on shelf 12 of hexagon 2B in the Crimson library.  It’s authenticity
and value is still being analysed.  One criticism of this work by Dr. P. Newt-Gallery
draws on the question of ease of access —  if the Library of Babel exists in a virtual
space, why is it then that it is completely inaccessible?  Could the mysteries of the
universe not simply be unlocked with the use of a search engine?

Authored by: Eric Lehman.  Who is this gentleman?  Find out in Big Damn Heroes

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

2 Responses to “How a Book is a Ladder”

  1. Ha! Love this – thanks so much!

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