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
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.