From With Borges by Alberto Manguel. Published by Thomas Allen in 2004. Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Curiosity. He lives in New York. In late 2015 Manguel was named director of the National Library of Argentina, a post held by Jorge Luis Borges from 1955 to 1973.
For a man who called the universe a library, and who confessed that he had imagined Paradise “bajo la forma de una biblioteca,” the size of his own library came as a disappointment perhaps because he knew, as he said in
another poem, that language can only “imitate wisdom.” Visitors expected a place overgrown with books, shelves bursting at the seams, piles of print blocking the doorways and protruding from every crevice, a jungle of ink and paper. Instead they would discover an apartment where books occupied a few unobtrusive corners. When the young Mario Vargas Llosa visited Borges sometime in the midfifties, he remarked on the quietly furnished surroundings and asked why the Master didn’t live in a grander, more luxurious place. Borges took great offence to this remark. “Maybe that’s how they do things in Lima,” he said to the indiscreet Peruvian, but here in Buenos Aires we don’t like to show off.”
The few bookcases, however, contained the essence of Borges’ reading, beginning with those that held the encyclopaedias and dictionaries, and were Borges’ pride, “You know,” he would say, “I like to pretend I’m not blind and I lust after books like a man who can see. I’m greedy for new encyclopaedias. I imagine I can follow the course of rivers on their maps and find wonderful things in the many entries.” He liked to explain how, as a child, he would accompany his father to the National Library and, too timid to ask for a book, would simply take one of the volumes of the Britannica from the open shelves and read whatever article opened itself to his eyes. Sometimes he would be lucky, as when, he said, he chose volume De–dr and learned about the Druids, the Druzes and Dryden. He never abandoned this custom of trusting himself to the ordered chance of an encyclopaedia, and he spent many hours leafing through, and asking to be read from, the volumes of the Bompiani, the Brockhaus, the Meyer, Chambers, the Britannica (the eleventh edition, with essays by De Quincey and Macaulay, which he had bought with the money of a second-place Municipal Prize he received in 1928) or Montaner and Simon’s Diccionario Enciclopédico Hispanoamericano. I would look up for him an article on Schopenhauer or Shintoism, Juana la Loca or the Scottish fetch. Then he would ask for a particularly appealing fact to be recorded, with the page number, at the back of the revelatory volume.
Mysterious notations in a variety of hands sprinkled the end papers of his books.
The two low bookcases in the living-room held works by Stevenson, Chesterton, Henry James, Kipling. From here he took a small red, bound edition of Stalky and Co. with the head of the elephant god Ganesha and the Hindu swastika that Kipling had chosen as his emblem and which he removed during the War when the ancient symbol was co-opted by the Nazis; it was the copy Borges had bought in his adolescence in Geneva, the same copy he was to give me as a parting gift when I left Argentina in 1968. From here too he had me fetch the volumes of Chesterton’s stories and Stevenson’s essays, which we read over many nights and on which he commented with wonderful perspicacity and wit, not only sharing with me his passion for these great writers but also showing me how they worked by taking paragraphs apart with the amorous intensity of a clockmaker. Here too he kept J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time; several books by H. G. Wells; Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone; various novels by Eça de Queiroz in yellowing cardboard bindings; books by Lugones, Güiraldes and Groussac; Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; Vies Imaginaires by Marcel Schwob; detective novels by John Dickson Carr, Milward Kennedy and Richard Hull, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi; Enoch Bennett’s Buried Alive; a small paperback edition of David Garnett’s Lady into Fox and The Man in the Zoo, with delicate line illustrations; the more-or-less Complete Works of Oscar Wilde and the more-or-less Complete Works of Lewis Carroll; Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abend-landes; the several volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; various books on mathematics and philosophy, including volumes by Swedenborg, Schopenhauer and Borges’s beloved Wörterbuch der Philosophie by Fritz Mauthner. Several of these books had accompanied Borges since his adolescent days; others, the ones in English and German, carried the labels of the Buenos Aires bookstores where they had been bought, all now vanished: Mitchell’s, Rodriguez, Pygmalion. He would tell visitors that Kipling’s library (which he had visited) curiously held mainly non-fiction books, books on Asian history and travel, mainly on India. Borges concluded that Kipling had not wanted or needed the work of other poets or fiction writers, as if he had felt that his own creations sufficed for his own needs. Borges felt the contrary: he called himself above all a reader and it was the books of others that he wanted around him. He still had the large red, bound Garnier edition in which he had first read Don Quixote (a second copy, bought in his late twenties after the first one disappeared) but not the English translation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the very first book he remembered reading.
The bookcases in his bedroom held volumes of poetry and one of the largest collections of Anglo-saxon and Icelandic literature in Latin America. Here Borges kept the books he used to study what he called the rough laborious words:
That with a mouth long turned to dust,
I used in the day of Northumberland
Before becoming Borges or Haslam.
A few I knew because I had sold them to him at Pygmalion: Skeat’s dictionary, an annotated version of The Battle of Maldon, Richard Meyer’s Altgermanische Religions Geschichte. The other bookcase held the poems of Enrique Banchs, of Heine, of San Juan de la Cruz, and many commentaries on Dante: by Benedetto Croce, Francesco Torraca, Luigi Pietrobono, Guido Vitali.
Somewhere (perhaps in his mother’s bedroom) was the Argentine literature that had accompanied the family on their voyage to Europe, shortly before World War I: Sarmiento’s Facundo, Siluetas militares by Eduardo Gutiérrez, the two volumes of Argentine history by Vicente Fidel López, Mármol’s Amalia, Eduardo Wilde’s Prometeo y Cia, Rosas y su tiempo by Ramos Mejía, several volumes of poetry by Leopoldo Lugones. And the Martín Fierro by José Hernández, the Argentine national epic the adolescent Borges chose to take on board ship, a book Doña Leonor disapproved of because of its flashes of local colour and vulgar violence.
Absent from the apartment’s bookshelves were his own books. He would proudly tell visitors who asked to see an early edition of one of his works that he didn’t possess a single volume that carried his “eminently forgettable” name. Once, when I was visiting, the postman brought an large parcel containing a deluxe edition of his story “The Congress,” published in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci. It was a huge book, bound and
Sleeping Warrior (series of six digital photographs, 40"× 60") by Shelley Niro. Niro is a member of Six Nations Reserve, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, Turtle Clan. Her work features photography, painting, beadwork and film. She was the inaugural recipient of the
Aboriginal Arts Award presented through the Ontario Arts Council in 2012. She lives in Brantford, ON.