Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Jorge Luis Borges' A Personal Library

In 1985 the Argentinean publisher Hyspamérica asked Jorge Luis Borges to select one hundred works of great literature, which they’d publish in a special collection, and to write accompanying prologues to each edition. The books started coming out in kiosks on the same year, but Borges only had the time to choose seventy-four volumes because of his death in 1988. I’m not sure if the books he chose were the great books the editor expected, but they’re certainly illustrative of Borges’ eclectic tastes, vast erudition and distaste for pedantry. He loved books and to talk about books, and even if he was most of the time courteous, he could be gently critical. He didn’t like Gabriel García Márquez, Jane Austen, Radclyffe Hall, Goethe, and thought Gustave Flaubert’s only good book was Bouvard and Pécuchet. He compared James Joyce unfavorably to Lewis Carroll, as any sane man would.

He was ridiculously well-read, articulate and passionate about reading and literature, but although some strangely call him the father of post-modernist literature, his tastes were very non-academic: ancient holy books, adventure novels, lots of detective stories, fantasy, the delectable storytellers of the 19th century – Stevenson, Kipling, Salgari, Poe. A Personal Library is hardly a guide to the best literature produced by Mankind, but it’s an excellent invitation to delve into some obscure and neglected writers, and an opportunity to discover some lost treasures. Anything with Borges’ stamp of approval is worth trying, as far as I’m concerned.

For some years now I’ve been trying to finish the list. It’s been a slow and frustrating task, it requires patience and lots of luck in finding some of the items. Some have been worth it and others have been major disappointments. The task grows more complicated due to the fact that some are a) anthologies organized by Borges himself, b) specific translations of texts into Spanish, like Frei Luis de León’s translation of the Song of Songs, c) prologues or individual essays, and d) some are of so little importance it’s not likely they’ll ever be translated into a language I can read. But I keep searching, who knows?, maybe they’ll show up one day. I had pretty much given up ever reading Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, and then a few weeks ago I walked into a bookstore and found a new Portuguese translation staring me in the face.

In some cases where it’s really difficult to find the text, I just try to find some alternative book by the writer. Since they’re all pretty obscure anyway, reading Borges’ choice or some other ends up being an act of discovery in itself. Even so I admit I haven’t made huge advances. The ones in bold are the books I’ve read:

Julio Cortázar, Stories: I don’t know which stories Borges means in particular. A selection? All of them? I find that unlikely, these editions were meant to be short and affordable. A complete edition would be prohibitive. I’m not Cortázar’s greatest fan, but I’ve read several of his short-story collections: Bestiario, Las armas secretas, Todos los fuegos lo fuego. “La autopista del sur" is one of the best short-stories I’ve ever read, turns a traffic jam on its head and becomes a parable of Mankind, darkly hilarious stuff. But I think I’m done with him.

Anonymous, The Apocryphal Gospels

Franz Kafka, Amerika; Short Stories: Amerika I read this year, and his stories I read a couple of years ago. Loved the novel (all his novels, in fact) but I can’t stand his short-stories.

G. K. Chesterton, The Blue Cross & Other Stories: I don’t know which other stories those would be, but I’ve read The Complete Father Brown, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, The Poet and the Madmen, Four Faultless Felons; I think I’ve surpassed Borges’ expectations, but I love Chesterton so I’ll continue until I run out of them.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: I loved The Woman in White more, but this is still a thrilling and very well-written detective novel. It was written when the rules of the genre hadn’t been carved in stone and it’s still very fresh and unpredictable.

Maurice Maeterlink, The Intelligence of Flowers

Dino Buzzati, The Desert of the Tartars: One of the most moving novels I’ve ever read; Buzzati is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century that no one has ever read. In the prologue Borges wrote that it’s easy to know the great classics but hard to know the great contemporaries. How true. His short-stories are equally extraordinary.

Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt; Hedda Gabler

Eça de Queiroz, The Mandarin: Like most Portuguese high school students I was sure Eça was a bore when I was forced to read The Maias. (I only read half, and still got a good mark in the exam; take that, educational system!) Years later I discover my beloved Borges loved Eça. I had to see what that was all about, so I tried the shortest of his books – The Mandarin. It was amazing! A novel had never made me laugh so hard before. Since then I’ve read Eça’s complete fiction.

Leopoldo Lugones, El Imperio Jesuítico

André Gide, The Counterfeiters

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; The Invisible Man: I really didn’t need Borges to tell me to read those two, but I’m glad we agree on Wells.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons: This novel managed to keep me off Dostoevsky for a few years until I gave Poor Folk a try. Maybe it was the translation’s fault, it was pretty old. A newer one might be more captivating.

E. Kasner & J. Newman, Mathematics and the Imagination

Eugene O'Neill, The Great God Brown; Strange Interlude; Mourning Becomes Electra

Ariwara no Narihara, The Ise Stories

Herman Melville, Benito Cereno; Billy Budd; Bartleby the Scrivener: The first novella didn't impress me, but perhaps I need to re-read it because I've retained so little of it in my memory after all these years. 'Bartleby' is one of the best books I've ever had the privilege of reading, that's it.

Giovanni Papini, Il tragico quotidiano; Il pilota cieco; Parole e sangue: Papini is another great writer no one ever heard of. His superb novel, Gog, is one of the fiercest attacks on Western civilization ever to disguise itself as literature. Borges preferred his short-stories, which are also quite good. Sarcastic, disenchanted, perhaps a bit deranged, I can’t praise his talent enough. I’ve even started reading him in Italian.

Arthur Machen, The Three Imposters: A horror/fantasy influential classic about a secret magical war going on in the peaceful streets of London, and the two chumps who don’t know how they got caught in it. Some have drawn parallels between this story and the real magical war between Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats inside the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. For fans of the genre, this is an excellent book.

Fr. Luis de León, Cantar de los Cantares; Exposición del Libro de Job

Joseph Conrad, The End of the Tether; Heart of Darkness: A novella I love to re-read.

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Oscar Wilde, Essays and Dialogues

Henri Michaux, A Barbarian in Asia

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Arnold Bennett, Buried Alive

Claudius Aelianus, On the Nature of Animals

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony

Marco Polo, Travels

Marcel Schwob, Imaginary Lives

George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra; Major Barbara; Candida

Francisco de Quevedo, La Fortuna con seso y la hora de todos; Marco Bruto

Eden Phillpots, The Red Redmaynes

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: I didn’t understand a single sentence of this.

Gustav Meyrink, The Golem: A bit of a chore, the prose wasn’t that good, but it’s full of strange ideas and fragments of mystical experiments.

Henry James, The Lesson of the Master; The Figure in the Carpet; The Private Life

Herodotus, The Histories

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo: I just don’t have the words to describe this masterpiece.

Rudyard Kipling, Tales: The man wrote lots of short-stories; I’ve read Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but I’m in no way finished with Kipling; he’s a better writer than many give him credit.

William Beckford, Vathek

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders: Not as great as Robinson Crusoe, in my opinion, it's still an otherwise interesting character study of poverty, misery, crime and ruthlessness.

Jean Cocteau, Le Secret professionnel

Thomas De Quincey, The Last Days of Emmanuel Kant and Other Stories

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Prólogo a la obra de Silverio Lanza

Antoine Galland, The Arabian Nights (selections)

Robert Louis Stevenson, New Arabian Nights; Markheim: I’ve read the “The Suicide Club” cycle in New Arabian Nights but I need to read the whole thing. As for “Markheim,” it’s a chilling murder story about a killer who’s visited by the devil after he murders an old men. Reminded me of James Hogg.

Léon Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs; Le Sang du pauvre; Dans les ténèbres

Anonymous, The Bhagavad-Gita; The Epic of Gilgamesh

Juan José Arreola, Cuentos fantásticos

David Garnett, Lady Into Fox; A Man in the Zoo; The Sailor's Return: Strange little novella about a woman who turns into a fox, that’s it, no explanation. It wasn’t very interesting.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels: Another great classic; read it many years ago, I should dip into the text again one day. Made me laugh silly.

Paul Groussac, Crítica literaria

Manuel Mujica Láinez, Los ídolos

Juan Ruíz, Libro de buen amor

William Blake, Complete Poetry: No one actually reads the complete poetry of William Blake! Anyone who does it is obviously mad. I know because I did.

Hugh Walpole, Above the Dark Circus

Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, Obra poética

Edgar Allan Poe, Tales: I read most of the short-stories in Portuguese, back in high school and loved them. (At least at the time they looked a lot more interesting than Eça.) When I re-read Poe in English a few years ago I realized his prose really is as turgid as many say it is. Amazing what a translation can hide.

Virgil, The Aeneid

Voltaire, Stories

J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time

Atilio Momigliano, Saggio su l'Orlando Furioso

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Snorri Sturluson, Egils Saga

That’s it at the moment. As you can see, I have a long way to go. I’ve never met anyone who’s tried to finish this list, but I’d love to read suggestions and thoughts about the other books on the list, especially the more exotic ones.


  1. What a fantastic list. It contains a good number of items I've never seen on any other such list (and never heard of either, so: bonus points). I'm headed to the library now.

    It's just like Borges to die and leave 26 works unaccounted for.

    1. It's just like Borges to die and leave 26 works unaccounted for.

      Yep, and it makes you wonder, "Now what else would he have included?"

      Fantastic is a good word, much of the list deals with his love for the fantastic and weird stuff. I'm pretty sure he would have included some Lovecraft and Bradbury (Bradbury being Poe done right for him).

  2. Scott, if you want to find some of the missing 26, collate this list with the "Library of Babel" list, a separate series.

    I am surprised on one has annotated the series, identifying the contents of each volume, and then posting the result on the internet. Perhaps someone has, but kept it hidden. I am also surprised no one has simply republished the series.

    Borges helped me read Vathek better just by including it on his list. I reread it through his eyes and got a lot more out of what at first seemed like generic exoticism, if that means anything.

    The Icelandic sagas are, in general, completely insane, unlike anything else in world literature. I assume publishing considerations limited Borges to just one.

    Sr. Caravanas de Recuerdos is a champion of the Juan Ruiz but thinks the English translation is a bust.

    The only Buzzati I have ever read is the extraordinary Bears' Invasion of Sicily.

    A common thread is the high value Borges puts on pure invention. Thus the little Garnett novels. Just come up with new and cool imaginative stuff, that's what Borges wants.

    1. You know, a Portuguese editor started publishing Borges' "The Library of Babel" a few years ago. I don't know how popular it's been here, and given our crappy economy, I don't even know if it's still going, but they released Villiers, Papini, Alarcón, Meyrink and a few more more unusual ones already. I think my next post will be about which ones I've read :)

      I am surprised on one has annotated the series, identifying the contents of each volume, and then posting the result on the internet.

      Ha ha, I might just do that one day!

      Borges helped me read Vathek better just by including it on his list.

      What, the whole 'starts in a tower, ends in hell' observation? Yeah, I thought that was clever. I'm dying to read Vathek but I want a complete edition, some new editions include chapters that weren't used in the original.

      The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily was my first book by him, had to read it in Italian. Understood enough to love it :) Fortunately Portugal has been publishing a lot by him in recent years.

      Regarding Lady into Fox, although it wasn't my cup of tea, the bit where she gave birth to cubs still caught me unawares, and then he husband takes care of them. That has so many freaky implications. For a 1922 book that was pretty bold and out there.

  3. Tom - thanks for the link. There does seem to be a lot of overlap. I note with some satisfaction that one item on the Babel list not on the personal list is a Pu Songling story. Your theory concerning Borges' choices seems to hold water; it would be a fun exercise to come up with alternate titles using that criterion.

    I loved Lady Into Fox, and was hoping for more, but from what little else I've tried to read by Garnett I've so far been disappointed. Buzzati is also a favorite, though his stories are not so readily available in English (I first had to turn to French to read him). Lawrence Venuti put out a couple of excellent English translations via the now defunct North Point Press that are well worth tracking down. One volume contains the especially memorable novella Barnabo of the Mountains. For whatever senseless reason, I've been holding onto The Tartar Steppe for later.

    1. The Tartar Steppe is good, it's really good! It's a metaphor about the danger of not living life while one still can, transplanting a young officer to a remote fort where he wastes his entire life waiting for the barbarians to attack, so he can earn glory. It's poignant, moving and depressing as hell. The Italians made an excellent film adaptation in the 1970s, with Max Von Sydox, Jacques Perrin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, the cream de la cream of European actors at the time.

  4. I have this book in a dreary cover, Miguel, but it's nice to see it here with your annotations. Juan Ruiz's Libro de buen amor is a favorite of mine as Tom indicates up above, but the English translations I've seen of it have been none too impressive. Go for the critical edition edited by Alberto Blecua on Cátedra if you can find it (you read Spanish also, right?), and you'll be in store for a lifetime of good reading with one book alone! P.S. Would you mind if I linked to your post for Spanish Lit Month this weekend? I think those readers who aren't familiar with your blog would enjoy reading it.

    1. I'll give it a try in Spanish, then, if I can find it: I'll look in Amazon Spain. But what is Ruiz' book, poems, short stories, a novel? I never really heard of him before, so any information would be appreciated.

      And feel free to share the link with other readers :)

    2. Says J. M. Cohen in The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse:

      The Libro de Buen Amor "is a poetic miscellany, containing accounts of love-affairs, burlesques, religious lyrics, and a grand battle between Carnival and Lent."

  5. Hm, I just checked the wiki page, it sounds really odd, I can see why Borges liked it. I'm not sure if I can read 14th century Spanish, though :)

    Just found the original here: http://bib.cervantesvirtual.com/servlet/SirveObras/24661685545133385754491/p0000002.htm

    I'll give it a go.

  6. Interesting. Thanks for the note on the Buzzati--I've had that book sitting in the pile to read but needed an additional push. I'll have to move it to the top.

    Seeing some of the choices on this list and the Library of Babel list brought to mind the frequently cited quote from Roberto Bolaño's 2666, about choosing Bartleby over Moby Dick, choosing "the perfect exercises of the great masters" over "imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."

    Obviously the intent of Borges was different (publishing vs. reading), not to mention Bolaño's passage is, in part, a justification for his own book. Even so, while there are some great ones in there, the choices for authors like Dostoyevsky, Melville, or Kafka brought to mind Bolaño's quote.

    1. Buzzati is very good, Dwight. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

      I don't know what was Borges' criteria, size was probably a factor, but I think he was mainly interested in treading the lesser known roads; that's why so many of these writers are obscure and sadly forgotten today.

    2. Size must have been a factor. Not to mention the "lesser known" factor, or maybe even just wanting to make it a little quirky. There are obviously some of standard heavyweights, but some of the choices are just puzzling...I just want to ask "that's the Henry James you're going with?" Not that there's anything wrong with it, but like I said a few of the choices remind me of the 2666 reference.

  7. Borges writes well of James in an essay on American expatriates, but he also claims to prefer the short-stories to the novels. An understandable bias since Borges was a short-story writer too :)

  8. I have just finished a film set in the legendary "Library of Babel". Would anyone like to see it?

  9. I appreciate you both sharing your favorites (many of which were already on my to-be-read list, but not Gulliver's Travels--it is now). Good points re: Borges's own gender biases/predilections. Apparently, I know nothing about his relationship or disputes with Marquez.

    1. Thank you for reading, Muzahid.

      Gulliver's Travels is a hilarious novel; I need to re-read it one day.

      Borges, strangely enough who reshaped modern fiction, was rather old-fashioned and didn't keep up with modern literature; on top of that, I suspect without evidence that he didn't like GGM for being a communist.

      There's a book by Alberto Manguel, With Borges, that lists several of the writers Borges didn't like; it's an amazing list!