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Jorge Luis Borges muses on his desert island book selections

By Francisca Folch

Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.
Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.

Ever since Daniel Defoe set the paradigm for the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe, desert-island lists have remained a popular setting for apocalyptic scenario decisions. Considering the books he would choose should he suffer the fate of the character, the poet André Gide included Cousin Bette, Dangerous Liaisons, and Madame Bovary. Faced with the same problem, G. K. Chesterton’s sensible selection was Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. In a query made by The New York Times at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ten most popular books for a desert island included “the Bible for comfort, . . . Boswell in lieu of society,” and—with self-conscious irony—“Robinson Crusoe for guide.” Doubting the sincerity of its readers, the article qualifies these as “books of the silent times,” adding that “The suburbanite . . . would die so soon on a desert isle, where there were no trains to run for; that the burial service should be all the literature he could want.”1 Notably, the character of Robinson Crusoe himself did not subsist on such a strict textual diet, since he was able to rescue several volumes from the shipwreck. Aside from books on navigation, he found “three very good Bibles,” “some Portuguese books. . . two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other books.”

In the short essay “La biblioteca de Robinsón” (“Robinson’s Library”), an unpublished manuscript recently acquired by the Ransom Center, readers can now discover Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s take on this issue.

Despite the slightly facetious title, Borges considers the task of selecting these life-sustaining texts rather seriously. The act of reading was essential for the erudite author, who in fact claimed that his had been “a lifetime dedicated less to living than to reading,” adding in his poem “A Reader”: “let others boast of the pages they have written; / I am proud of the pages I have read.” Libraries were of primordial importance to him, and in his “Aubiographical Essay,” he remarked that “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library.” Although he frequently contributed to literary magazines in Buenos Aires and had become an established writer in his forties, Borges was forced to take on a job as cataloger for 10 years at a minor municipal library. The Perón regime to which he was opposed later fired him and appointed him Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits at a public marketplace, a position that Borges declined, declaring himself incompetent. To remedy this humiliation, after Perón was deposed in 1955, the writer was appointed director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires, although, ironically, by this time he was almost completely blind due to a congenital eye disease. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, rumors have it that his conservative political views kept him from winning the award. Borges visited the United States for the first time when he held the Tinker Foundation visiting professorship at The University of Texas at Austin from 1961 to 1962, and, after the death of his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, he travelled widely, giving lectures on literature and writing.

As a poet, essayist, and short-story writer, Borges was known for creating metaphysical fantasy worlds in which men search for meaning in an infinite universe. In his famous short story “The Aleph,” which tells the story of a writer who discovers a peephole that contains all the points of view in the universe, past, present, and future, Borges quotes Hamlet as an epigraph: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a King of infinite space.” A believer in the Hinduist and Buddhist idea that reality is illusive and anchored in the mind, Borges appreciated the richness held in the world of imagination. Riddled with labyrinths, Borges’s texts convey the disquieting sense that ultimate knowledge is elusive, residing in textual codes guarded by confused librarians. The short story “The Library of Babel” imagines the universe as a library, which includes the dizzying catalog of all possible books:

All: the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon the gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all the books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.2

Borges’s fiction often turns into mystical disquisitions that lend themselves particularly well to the essay form, in which his intricate style shines through with polished eloquence. The manuscript of “Robinson’s Library,” which is signed by Borges and displays his small neat handwriting, is dated circa 1940, at a time when the author’s eyesight was starting to show signs of fading. Given his obsession with books as repositories for knowledge—both actual and potential—this brief piece is a rare exercise in minimalism.

Borges begins by setting the rules of his quest, with the warning that the three individual volumes are not supposed to be “the three most important books in the universe or even. . . the three most memorable books in our personal experience.” Since his selection is not based on the desire to maintain a historical record of literature, nor act as a biographical composite of his personality, he finds little sense in choosing books from the established canon or books he already knows by heart. Playfully toying with several answers, Borges is sobered by the daunting thought of choosing texts that will accompany him for all eternity. Dismissing famous novels and books of verse for their dangerous nostalgic value, the author bans texts that discuss human relationships altogether and suggests instead those that deal with “the relationship man-God, man-numbers, man-Universe.”

The metaphysical concerns that appear in Borges’s fiction form the basis of his required island literature. On his last visit to Austin in April 1976, he gave an interview to The Daily Texan where he commented on his writing methods and offered suggestions to future writers. Asked about his idea of God, he stated: “I say what Bernard Shaw said, ‘God is in the making.’ God is not something prior to the universe. We are all creating God. When we think, when we feel, when we write, we are simply creating that being.” In a similar philosophical vein, in his essay he selects books that will provide eternal food for thought, “books that one must conquer little by little and that can populate the unchanging years.”

His list results in a lucid, yet unexpected trio: a metaphysical book (his examples are spearheaded by Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, which is influenced by Eastern mysticism), a book “on history that is sufficiently remote” (Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tacitus battle it out for this title), and a good algebra text, with many exercises—the latter a revelation that can be traced to his fascination for the elegance present in mathematics, and that has been recently explored by scholars.3

The Jorge Luis Borges collection at the Ransom Center includes some early letters and manuscripts, a notebook containing a collection of poems, and five of Borges’s personal notebooks dating from the period 1949–1960: four in Borges’s own hand, the fifth dictated to his mother. The collection also comprises working drafts of a number of published works and several manuscripts of texts, such as the first draft of one of his best known short stories, “Emma Zunz,” which forms part of El Aleph (1949). Also in the collection is a fair copy of his sonnet “Texas,” dated 1967, which was donated to the Ransom Center by Edward Larocque Tinker, an author and philanthropist whose collection of art, books, and artifacts focuses mainly on South America. Illustrating the curiously appropriate position that Borges holds as a unique figure in the Ransom Center’s archive, this poem recognizes the similarly vital tensions that arise in two distant places and backgrounds, the Texas plains and the Argentine pampas: “Here too. Here as at the other edge / of the hemisphere. . . / Here too the never understood, / Anxious, and brief affair that is life.”4

1September 22, 1900. The New York Times.
2Translated by William Goldbloom Bloch in The Unimaginable Mathematics. Oxford UP, 2008.
3This theme is explored in the collection of essays Borges y la matemática (Borges and Mathematics, 2003) by Argentine mathematician and writer Guillermo Martínez, and books such as The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2008) and Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics by Floyd Merrell (1991).
4Borges, Jorge Luis. Texas. Trans. Mark Strand. Austin: Humanities Research Center, UT, 1975.