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Ask a Bookseller: ‘Babel’

Ask a Bookseller Podcast
Ask a Bookseller

Carson Crooks of Prince Books in Norfolk, Va., highly recommends R. F. Kuang’s novel “Babel,” which had him alternating between tearing through the story and stopping to investigate the actual historical events it referenced. 

Set in mid-19th century London, the world of this novel looks much like our history, except that the central form of power comes of translating and transcribing words on silver bars. Power, then, derives from gaining control over as many languages as possible. 

"Babel" by R. F. Kuang
"Babel" by R. F. Kuang.
Harper Voyager

The story centers on Robin Swift, an orphan born in Canton in Guangzhou, who was taken to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell.

In order to survive, he studies Latin, Ancient Greek and Chinese, all with the hopes of being admitted to Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel.

As Swift’s work, which benefits the British Empire, puts him in conflict with his homeland, powerful questions arise. Is it better to attempt to change an oppressive system from within it or try to tear it to the ground? 

In this work of literary fiction, Crooks was particularly struck by the footnotes. Wars, altercations and other historical events referenced in the story are explained in footnotes.

Crooks found himself pointed back to real events in history even as he pondered the philosophical questions of power and empire raised in the story.