You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I decided to read some works by Jorge Luis Borges after listening to the lecture series on fantasy literature. I picked up a copy of Labyrinths as was pleased that I read it.

Borges wrote short stories and essays, and some poetry. His stories have a sense of magic, or perhaps philosophy dissolved with theology. Thus his genre is called magical realism.

The first story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", is about the discovery of a volume of an encyclopedia that has extra sections describing a country that never existed. What follows is the tracking down of the creation of the country and the other volumes of the encyclopedia. This story is typical of Borges style, where he mixes truth and fiction to create a strange sense of verisimilitude.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" describes the creation of a book that represents a story told as if every decision had been made multiple ways, which chapters repeating parts where the characters did something different than before. "The Library of Babel" is another fascinating story about a vast library that contains books of every combination of a certain set of letters (and puctuation and spaces) in a certain number of pages, so that every work of literature is represented. However, the librarians go made trying to find anything that makes sense out of the endless rows of books containing nothing but gibberish. "The Secret Miracle" is about a man who is condemned to be shot by a firing squad, but at the last moment time freezes and he realizes he has been granted a chance to finish, in his mind, his great work.

Many of Borges' stories use the element of a book to use as a hook into another world or dimension. It is interesting to explore the worlds that live in books in a different way.

My favorite story is "The Lottery in Babylon". It describes the beginning of a simple lottery in Babylon. The lottery becomes more complex, and the stakes get higher. Soon everyone is playing, and in fact participation becomes mandatory. To make things more interesting, an extra element is added, where one person will win, but another person will lose. Someone may win a new house; someone else may lose a family member. Since everyone plays, everyone has their fate determined by the lottery. Everything that happens is a result of the lottery. Thus, the lottery becomes a metaphor for fate itself.

His essays, while not as fantastic, are also interesting. "Avatars of the Tortoise" describes the different uses of the paradox of ever-halving distances to prove that movement is impossible. "The Mirror of Enigmas" describes how we view things "through a glass darkly", as in Augustine's words.

Borges is fascinated by circles and repetitions, by representations that mean two different things. A character will discover something that makes him realize two different things are really the same thing seen in different ways. Or a single thing will turn out to have to distinct parts. His visions are fascinating, and stick with the reader for a long time.

This book is an A+. I am definitely glad I read it.


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