Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges
New Directions, 1962
“Before unearthing this letter, I had questioned myself about the ways in which a book can be infinite. I could think of nothing other than a cyclic volume, a circular one. A book whose last page was identical with the first, a book which had the possibility of continuing indefinitely.”
-from “The Garden of Forking Paths”
They say that life is an open book. And that’s what I am thinking about one cool day in March as I walk down the small cobblestone street that leads to Cecil Court. I have the day off from the London Book Fair. What better way to spend time than to browse for books? The West End theatre doors are shut. Garbage lines the streets. The sun doesn’t shine. But the shops are open and waiting. Rare travel books. Old fictions. Dusty art and illustrated tomes. The windows and shop fronts lurch outward, crooked and inviting. Like little brick and wooden mazes. There is no way out other than to go in. I browse the shelves, the red and marbled spines. Everyman’s Library is what I’m looking for. For every man right? Small. Leather. Portable. Easily hidden. But never lost.
“Excuse me Sir,” the bearded man in the torn sweater asks. “Excuse me, but weren’t you just in here this morning?”
I look at him puzzled.
“No, not me. It must have been someone else.”
“No, I’m sure it was you. Or then it was your double?” he laughs.
“No, certainly not me.”
“Well, whoever it was looks just like you.”
One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time; it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory.
-from “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
The term ‘lose yourself in the library’ always touches me. There are secret worlds there no one knows about. Planets and stars. Hidden universes. Public libraries. University libraries. Library cards. Library depositories. Archives. Book stacks and book banks and lending libraries. Library of Congress. Librarians. One night the lights went out in our college library. I was alone on the second floor studying. A door opened. I could hear footsteps coming from behind me in the dark. Someone, or something, was groping at the tables and chairs moving towards me fast. I could hear the sound of heavy breathing. Like wind whistling through a broken window. Something touched my shoulder. I jerked away and started running in the dark tripping over tables and chairs. The lights went back on and the floor I was on was empty. No one was there.
Perhaps we the living are nothing more than libraries ourselves, nothing more than books. We have a beginning and a middle and an end. We are opened and then closed again. The real world, the real reality is tightly held within white pages bound in stiff hardback. These realities sit on shelves quietly and read us. A page of us is turned. Then another. From beginning to end. And then a new one of us is read. On and on. Forever.
He feared his son might meditate on his abnormal privilege and discover in some way that his condition was that of a mere image. Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man’s dream, what a feeling of humiliation, of vertigo!
-from “The Circular Ruins”
On the last page of a short story in the book I am writing this essay about, I scribbled some notes to myself: ‘all new novels create past ones’ and ‘our future inventions create the past.’ I have no fucking clue what that means now 20 years after writing it. I can’t even remember what the short story was about. But somehow it affected me deeply enough to scribble those notes, to underline passages, to earmark pages, to keep the book on my shelf 20 years until it yellows and falls apart like brittle desert parchment between my aging fingers. Perhaps it wasn’t even me who read it back then, but someone else who left me long ago. Perhaps 20 years from now (if I live that long) I’ll feel the same way about the words I’m writing here. Point is it really doesn’t matter much. Someone writes the book and someone reads it. Like sticking your hand in soft water and watching the ripples erase your face. You can’t see yourself anymore and the ripples move on. Doesn’t matter which is which. Who is who.
“I am looking for god.” The librarian said to him: “God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my father have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.” He removed his glasses, and Hladik saw his eyes, which were dead.
-from “The Secret Miracle”
The snow falls gently. It bathes the fence, the front yard, the fountain, the porch and house in glorious swelling tufts of fabulous white. The clouds hang low and the Sierras disappear (everything disappears) behind a milky curtain of soft, silent snow. Your ankles are burning from a raging heater in a VW Beatle on the way home from school. It’s 4 p.m. and you’re finally off for the holidays. Your mom is home but you don’t see her yet. Your dad will be home later tonight after his swing shift but you’ll be fast asleep before then. Your brother is with you. Your best friend’s mom and neighbor blast the VW through the sweeping drifts of snow that lead up your driveway. You clutch a crisp stack of new books that arrived today at school from your seasonal book order. They have red and yellow and blue spines, bright colorful paperbacks. They smell fresh and crisp and new. They are all yours and you clutch them to your chest and imagine reading them forever. Forever! You are warm and happy and there is nothing but white and miles of soft beautiful falling snow.
The library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order; the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.
-from “The Library of Babel”