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Jorge Luis Borges, book blogger

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Jorge_Luis_Borges.jpgExplaining why he'd never written a novel, Jorge Luis Borges remarked,

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Not just books, or imaginary books, either.  Borges is a compulsive summarizer and commentator.  No text, real or imagined, seems too short to merit this treatment.  He opens his six-page story, "The Dead Man," by saying, "I do not know the full details of [Benjamin Otálora's] adventure; when I am apprised of them, I will correct and expand these pages.  For now, this summary may be instructive."

Nor does he restrict his commentary to a sentence here and there.  More than half of his barely five-page page, "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," is commentary on an anecdote about a barbarian who switched sides while sacking Rome.  And while Borges' commentary constitutes the story in the foregoing example, his commentary seems to reverse the meaning of the story in the case of "Averröes' Search," transforming the tale from one of discovery into one of failure.

Borges offers a potential rationale for his inveterate commenting in, "The Immortal," at the end of which he appends a "postcript" [sic] to a text allegedly slipped into the last volume of Pope's Iliad.  Acknowledging that the text's veracity has been questioned because it quotes or plagiarizes from other texts, Borges remarks:

To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable.  As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus [the author of the text found in Pope's Iliad], there are no longer any images from memory - there are only words.  Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men - those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
What else is commentary but "words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men"?  To quote the words of other men (or the imagined words of other men) and "mutilate" them by placing them in another context, arguing with them, juxtaposing them against other words, complicating their meaning, burnishing or adding to their facets, is to engage in the act of commentary.  And for Borges, the raw materials for that commentary - the words - were "the alms left him by the hours and the centuries": his inheritance from history.

At this juncture, I'd like to offer my commentary on Borges' habit of commenting: his impulse is not so much like that of a fiction writer, but of a blogger.  Fiction writers are interested in stories: plots and characters.  Borges is interested in analysis.  Borges - because he's Borges - manages to make stories out of analysis, but his success doesn't transform his approach from one of a commentator into one of a fiction writer.  Nor does that fact that Borges is sometimes commenting on or analyzing imaged texts make his methodology suitable for fiction: just as a law student arguing a moot court case is practicing legal techniques, not fiction writing, so Borges is acting the part of commentator, not author.  

As Rivka Galchen says in her New York Times essay on Borges,

he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading. . . . To love a text: isn't that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?
"[W]riting . . . [as an] intensely engaged way[] of reading" - that's why I blog about books.  When I finish a book, I want to deepen, heighten, round-out and complete the experience by writing about it.  "[H]elplessly casting about for something to say in return" to a book is a good description of my blog.   

In this light, Borges' stunning innovation is that he appears to have invented book blogging before blogs existed.  Not that this technological gap really matters.  If Cartaphilus can chat with Homer eleven hundred years after he wrote the Odyssey, then Borges can blog before blogs - or the Internet, or even personal computers - were invented.  In my analysis, Borges' stories, properly understood and contextualized, are blog posts.  Likewise, Borges' books are compilations of his posts - he may be the world's first blogger to have landed a publishing contract.  

And in this post, I am imagining Borges' blog and (imaginarily) hyper-linking to it.  Check it out, folks: once you read his posts, you'll want to leave a comment.

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times

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