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Sunday, February 12, 2006


The Book of Sand (El libro de arena) is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. It may be seen as a radically stripped down version of his 1941 story The Library of Babel. It also has parallels to The Zahir, continuing the themes of self-reference, Motif-of-harmful-sensation and attempting to abandon the terribly infinite. The story appears in a book of the same name, the Spanish language version of which was first published in 1975. The English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni was first published in The New Yorker, the entire volume The Book of Sand (ISBN 0525475400) was published in 1977.

Plot summary

spoiler The titular Book of Sand is the Book of all Books, and is a monster. The story tells how this book came into the possession of a fictional version of Borges himself, and of how he ultimately disposed of it. The fictive Borges in the story, like the real Borges, lives in an apartment on Belgrano Street in Buenos Aires, surrounded by his books: encyclopedias, maps, sacred tomes, the worlds fantasies concerning itself. He receives an unnamed caller who initially introduces himself as a Bible salesman. Borges is by no means short of Bibles, but, as it develops, that is not what the visitor is there to sell. The salesman, who is a Presbyterian from the Orkneys, produces an bookbinding, bound in cloth, on whose spine are the words Holy Writ and Bombay. On opening the book, Borges finds that the pages are written in an indecipherable script appearing in double columns, ordered in versicles as in a Bible. When he opens to a page with an illustration, the bookseller advises a close look, since the page will never be found, or seen, again. It proves impossible to find the first or last page. This Book of Sand has no beginning or end: its pages are infinite. Each page is numbered, apparently uniquely but in no discernable pattern. The bookseller indicates that he acquired the book in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible, from an owner who did not know how to read. His conscience is clear with respect to that transaction: he feels sure of not having cheated the native in exchanging the Word of God for this diabolic trinket. He and the fictive Borges strike a bargain, and Borges exchanges a months pension check plus a black-letter John Wyclif Bible for the miraculous book. The Scotland philosopher David Hume is mentioned, and the poet George Herbert is referenced via the epigraph, Thy rope of sands. Above all, Herbert in his poetry wants us to see Gods revealed truth, which the Presbyterian bookseller believes is written in a book, in the Book, to the point that his evangelism extends to an illiterate Hindu. The Hindu has, in exchange, given him what to him must be the opposite of incontestable writ: a text which can never be read the same way twice. It can be by no means accidental that Borges (the author, not the character) has placed into the hands of an evangelical Presbyterian an immediate object, the sense of which undermines plain faith in a Christian eschatology. One imagines that to the Presbyterian Bible salesman, Gods truth is a simple truth. This simple religion was by no means shared by the philosopher Hume, who, according to James Boswell, although the son of Presbyterians,...owned that he had never read the New Testament with attention... and had been at no pains to enquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way (Boswell, p.409). According to Hume,... evidence... for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses, because, even in the first authors of our religion whose texts are founded on the testimony of the apostles, it was no greater, and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples, nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of their senses. Borges underscores the distance between the bookseller and Hume by having his fictive persona express his great personal affection for Scotland, through my love of Robert Louis Stevenson and Hume. The salesman corrects him, adding, And Robert Burns. The worldly Borges ultimately proves no more able to live with the terrifying book than was the salesman. He considers destroying the book by fire, but decides against this after reasoning that such a fire would release infinite amounts of smoke, and asphyxiation the entire world. Ultimately, Borges transports the book to the Argentine National Library (of which the real Borges was, for many years, the head). Slipping past a member of the staff and trying not to notice at what height or distance from the door... he loses the Book of Sand on one of the basements musty shelves, the infinite book deliberately lost in a near-infinity of books.


James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1909). London: Collins Clear-Type Press, online at David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X (Of Miracles), online at p://www.rbjones.com/rbjpub/philos/classics/hume/echu101.htm.


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