In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.
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JORGE LUIS BORGES, A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INIQUITY (1935, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I read one Borges story, and then knew I would read all of them.
THOUGHTS: Get ready. The next half-dozen or so entries here are going to be the product of slowly working my way through Borges’s Collected Fictions, which I’ve had for years and never really cracked (aside from the individual stories I’ve come across during and since university).
Already, the Argentine’s debut collection is so strange that only he could have written it. On the surface, this series of sketches about famous historical rogues and bad guys is all true—Borges even includes a bibliography at the end. But it turns out that he made a ton of it up, and rarely ever pulls information from the places he claims to. The piece about Billy the Kid, for instance, is nearly 100% fiction. As Borges himself writes in a preface written 20 years after the fact, “They are the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of other men.” This will become a recurring theme.
One thing I’ve always loved about Borges is his powers of compression, and right away he’d gotten that part down pat. “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” is about a prophet who wears a mask because, he claims, God makes all who look upon his face go blind. Then his mask is pulled off, and he’s revealed as a fraud. The end of the story turns on a dime:
Hakim’s voice attempted one final deception: Thy abominable sins forbid thee to look upon my radiance… he began.
No one was listening; he was riddled with spears.
Sometimes people ask me how you’re supposed to use a semi-colon. From now on, I will point to the last sentence above. That’s how you fucking use a semi-colon.
KEEP OR SELL: Keep.
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JORGE LUIS BORGES, THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS (1941, TRANS. ANDREW HURLEY)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: See above.
THOUGHTS: Well, that didn’t take long: in his second book, Borges the genius rears his head. The Garden of Forking Paths contains no fewer than four of my all-time favourite stories: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel.” For those keeping score at home, that’s 50% of the entire collection. Who does he think he is, a Sloan album? Those numbers are obscene.
It’s also here that Borges lays out his great contribution to the history of literature: the idea of footnoting, summarizing, critiquing, and otherwise engaging with books that don’t exist. This, of course, opens doors that point towards infinite loops, footnotes upon footnotes upon footnotes, which you see in “Al-Mu’tasim” and more overtly in “The Library of Babel,” which features a library that literally stretches into infinity.
Borges is humble about this innovation—in the foreword he refers to himself as a “more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man” than critics who discuss real books—but it remains an incredibly potent topic. I still read an alarming number of novels that outright deny the existence of other books. Borges, meanwhile, is constantly punch-drunk on other people’s writing—so much so that it keeps creeping into his own fiction. And sometimes he gets so carried away, he can’t help but improve upon the originals. Can you blame him?
KEEP OR SELL: Keep.