Monday, July 12, 2010

Shelving and Sorting

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In Luis Fernando Verissimo's witty and playful little novel Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, the cloistered, not necessarily reliable protagonist, whose life has been "spent among books," explains his status as a single man like this:
It didn't take much persuasion to keep me single. I had always thought of a permanent domestic commitment to any woman other than Aunt Raquel as an intellectual threat. Not that another woman would steal my soul, but she would fatally interfere with the organisation of my books, for which Aunt Raquel had a reverential respect that she had transmitted to a long line of terrified cleaning ladies. The "young master's books" were not to be touched, wherever they were in our small Bonfim apartment, and the shelf containing my editions of Borges was a kind of reliquary which, if profaned, could cost them their hands.
I think that's taking one's organizational schemes a bit too far.

Later in the novel, in Borges's library--which the narrator is surprised to find less organized than he'd expected, with piles of books on the floor--the master relates a tale that implicitly argues for the pleasures of a bit of disorder:
You told how in the King of Bohemia's fantastical library they resorted to coincidence in their attempts to evoke the spiritual language that circulated in the spheres and in dreams and that sought expression and significance in words, in vowels and consonants. With eyes closed, they would remove a book from the shelves, open it at random, choose a line, and then immediately copy this down. The process was repeated until they had a reasonably coherent paragraph or one that was promisingly incoherent and open to interpretation.
Which, of course, sends me to my shelves:
Never settle in a city where there aren't Jews: the food will be terrible and there'll be no culture. "What's the next move," asked Bunce, the pot-bellied dwarf. (This claim is anyway partly borne out by the standard dictionary of Ancient Egyptian.) Or there, about thirty-five feet in the air, I was in love with a girl who read my fortune in my hand and infuriated me by predicting that I would be the least important of the three great loves of her life. The houses have that peculiarly wintry aspect now on the west side, being all plastered over with snow adhering to the clapboards and half concealing the doors and windows. Perhaps in a broken, nocturnal, past-haunted city of solitary wanderers and lunatic leagues, like this one, such universal fantasies and the fellowship they provide are no longer possible.
For the sake of those who prefer their sortes IBRL unexplicated, I've hidden the citations here. I claim no predictive quality--except, that is, for melancholic, solitary wanderers and members of lunatic leagues who've been disappointed in love.

And, pray tell, what do your shelves have to say?


  1. Fun! Also, it seems vaguely reminiscent of the Sortes virgilianae. Too lazy to actually put together a paragraph at the moment, though.

  2. Lovely. I must ask what is rocketlass' photo a photo of? It's a great sculpture -- where is it, and by whom? I will put together a paragraph of this nature this evening, hopefully.

  3. The sculpture is in downtown Oklahoma City, in a square full of fountains and sculptures, though I don't know what street it's on or who the artist is.

  4. K. Frazier2:54 PM

    I´ve been reading a biography of Tesla lately, and he had the same problem of not wanting a woman around to interfere with the organization of his scientific work. Of course, he gave us the AC electrical motor that revolutionized the world. So you might say it was worth the loss of love and human connection. Then again, you might say he could´ve had his electricity and his humanity too, if he hadn´t been quite so stubborn. Tesla is, I´ve started to think, a Borges character, or is at least modified by Borges in the way Borges taught us that great writers always modify the past. Thanks as always for sharing your fascinating thoughts on your reading.

  5. My random generation:

    Across that great gulf, in the high seas of this democracy, we went out with this object, leaving my aunt behind; Voltaire used his extraordinary style to show (or to suggest) that the facts of history are appalling. There is no question but that this whole-number relationship, with its eidetic clarity, was capable of only approximate confirmation by the accuracy of the experiments that were possible for him -- and that that was all it needed. I have been described by some reporters as being introverted or shy, and I guess this is true to some extent. "They had to flee into Egypt," she said in a low voice and turned her head again and this time her eyes moved directly to Rayber's face in the window and he knew they sought it. The porter at the door for the rent. The people asked, "Did you find him?"

    Tesla is... a Borges character

    Funny, I always think of him as a Beaton character.

  6. Books used in the generation of this random paragraph: Ferlinghetti, "Landscapes of Living and Dying"; "David Copperfield"; Borges, foreword to Edward Gibbons "Pages of History and Autobiography"; Hans Blumenberg, "Genesis of the Copernican Worldview"; "The Violent Bear It Away"; "The Burroughs File"; and two others that are slipping my mind.