Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Borges' Book Life

Struck by a reference by the prodigious Maud Newton to a scholarly study attempting to work out (of all things!) the literary math of the late Jorge Luis Borges, I wondered whether there wasn't a simpler explanation for his 1944 short story The Library of Babel (La biblioteca de Babel).

Like much of Borges' surreal writing, the story occurs in a "universal library" representing iterations of every possible idea ever written, a variation that one William Goldbloom Bloch, a math professor at Wheaton College estimates to yield 1033,013,740, an "unimaginably large" number. To certain mathematically masturbatory intellects reflections such as these is what Borges was all about.

In fact, however, to anyone who knows about Borges' physical relationship with books, from his early librarian assistant's job in the 1930s to his post as director of the National Library in Buenos Aires where Borges worked in the 1950s and 1960s, the point of the story is not mathematical at all.

Borges spent his life physically surrounded, and involved in the sisyphean task of overcoming the endless output of the publishing industry. In 1936, Borges' colleagues forbade him to catalogue books, as he could sort 100 per hour, making everybody else look bad. Wander through the claustrophobic aisles of the National Library and the short story that has fascinated many intellectually acquires a visceral reality.

Borges lived awash in books, a writer who went blind, lived much of his life with his mother and, despite two relatively utilitarian marriages, maintained distance from people. This story, as so many others, is a mental flight of fancy entirely devoid of emotions -- except his own.

One can see the librarian at work in this story, the man of paper and carton and wood shelves, used to a dry, somewhat stale environment and endless quietude.

Yes, there is math and brilliance and he was aware of such things. Yet the person, the experience at the bottom is the sense of living a universe made almost entirely of books. There is, perhaps, just a little claustrophobia in the aisles of his mind.

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