We Are the Library: Borges and the Search for Meaning

This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.

– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”


In one of his most famous stories, Argentine metaphysical author Jorge Luis Borges positions his narrator in the fictitious and eponymous Library of Babel, wherein each room is uniform and filled with a fixed number of books. Each book therein contains a set number of pages and each page a set number of characters. No two books are identical and the library is infinite. As the narrator explains, this structure means that the Library is more than just the conceptual idea of infinity made real: the Library must necessarily contain every book that ever has been or will ever be written or imagined, as well as an infinite number of minor variations of these books.

That’s a lot to take in and the full scope is mind-numbingly vast. It means that the Library contains perfect replicas of every word that Shakespeare or Hemingway or Borges himself ever wrote as well as nearly perfect replicas of all of those works, marred by one or two or – more extremely – one thousand typographical errors. This entire essay appears, written in Spanish, Wolof, Mandarin and countless other languages (literally countless, mind you). There are heartbreaking novels written in languages that have not yet come to exist. There are primers for reading those languages and translations of those primers into more languages still. All of these ideas are absurd and difficult to comprehend and yet they are completely logical extensions of Borges’ premise.

(If I’ve lost you already, that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good introduction to reading Borges. Slow down. Read through all of that again and then maybe a third and fourth time after that. Once you’ve managed to build the logical and yet inconceivable world of Borges’ Library in your mind’s eye, you’re ready to continue.) Continue reading “We Are the Library: Borges and the Search for Meaning”

2014: What I Read

Following up on Monday’s musical retrospective, it’s time to award some superlatives to the books that I read in 2014. Straying even farther from release dates than with my musical entry, this list reflects books that I read in 2014, not necessarily books that were released this year.

Most Hyped Book (That I Didn’t Really Like) – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This was a tough call. Snow Crash was certainly a candidate given its importance in the science fiction community and my bland reaction to it, and yet I had to go with Gone Girl. I’ve already voiced my concerns about the book and there’s no need to rehash them here. Admittedly, as was the case for a lot of books that I read in 2014, I am not in the target demographic for Gone Girl. Unlike a lot of those other books, though, I didn’t much care for this one. For what it’s worth, I thought that David Fincher did a solid job transitioning Gone Girl into a film.

Best Atypical Voicing – The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I was late to the party in reading this one but Haddon deserves full marks for his crafting of narrator Christopher John Francis Boone, a character from whom the reader is wholly different and with whom the reader fully relates. That is no easy task.

It's the patting your head and rubbing your stomach of literature, really.
It’s the patting your head and rubbing your stomach of literature, really.

Most Devastating Final Paragraph – ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ from Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. I only finished reading this book a couple of days ago, so I haven’t yet reviewed it on BQDC and I won’t get ahead of myself by doing so now. I’ll only say that Salinger is an absolute master and that the first story from his Nine Stories is a brilliantly told, character driven piece that belongs with Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ and Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ on the short list of best American short stories. Continue reading “2014: What I Read”

Let It Snow

At this point I’ve read all of John Green’s books and enjoyed each of them immensely. I’ve also become a big fan of the VlogBrothers as I slowly make my way through their massive catalog of videos. Despite my age placing me slightly outside of the group’s target demographic, I am proudly a Nerdfighter. If nothing else, it would be hard not to support all the work that John and his brother Hank have done to aid various humanitarian and environmentalist efforts. Following their lead, I even got involved with micro-finance through Kiva this year. So that’s all well and good.

Here's the video that prompted me to take action.
Here’s the video that prompted me to take action.

Where things get a little less rosy has been my (admittedly extremely limited) experience with Green’s contemporaries in the young adult fiction space. I quite enjoyed Will Grayson, Will Grayson – which Green co-wrote with David Levithan – although I certainly had a preference for Green’s half of the novel. And when I read it at the prompting of a VlogBrothers episode, I wasn’t all that big a fan of Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes partly because I’m widely outside of its intended audience.

Not pictured: an almost 30 year old dude.
Not pictured: me.

None of this stuff is really meant for me. I get that. But I think that one of the great things about YA books – and all children’s books, really – is that they can generally be enjoyed by readers of all ages. When it comes to reading, age is a baseline entry level, not a strict and closing window of opportunity.

Continue reading “Let It Snow”

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

I wrote earlier about the truth in the old cliché that you should never judge a book by it’s cover. And while that remains true, sometimes reading a book because of its awesome cover can still be the right choice. Though I had read Siddhartha and enjoyed it, the book wasn’t particularly transformational for me and gave me no reason to have any unique fascination with Hermann Hesse. So when I decided to read a collection of Hesse’s more fantastical short stories, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, I did so almost entirely because of the book’s great cover art.

I’m a big fan of woodcut illustrations and David Frampton’s cover and in-book artwork are truly amazing. While Frampton’s art is what led me to Fairly Tales it was only a part of the excellent reading experience that the book offers.

Continue reading “The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse”

Harry Potter and the Metabolic Disease

We’ve come to the part of the year where candy and sweets are everywhere, all the time. You pretty much won’t be able to escape cookies and pies and chocolate flavored toothpaste until after New Year’s Day at this point.

Wait.

Chocolate flavored toothpaste? Seriously? That’s really a thing? God, we are truly a disgusting and gluttonous people.

You know who seems like they might appreciate that product even more than that creepy lady you work with who has seven types of candy in her desk at all times?

Harry Friggin’ Potter and Ronald Effing Weasley.

These guys.
These candy fiends.

Maybe it’s a British thing and I, as a clueless American, simply don’t get it. But man, these kids ate a lot of candy over the course of seven books.

Continue reading “Harry Potter and the Metabolic Disease”

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible is a book about superheroes that is neither a comic book nor a graphic novel. Drop the comic, drop the graphic. It’s simply a book, a novel. About superheroes. And it is awesome.

The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of a literal evil genius, Dr. Impossible, who suffers from the brilliantly named Malign Hypercognition Disorder, and an aspiring superheroine, the cyborg Fatale.

Grossman’s prose wisely plays off of a long list of superhero tropes: ridiculous superhero names and costumes, supervillains escaping imprisonment only to be captured again and again, and secret island lairs fortified by robotic defenders all make proud appearances in Soon I Will Be Invincible. All the more remarkable is that the story never lags despite its treading over such well worn ground. Continue reading “Soon I Will Be Invincible”

A Princess of Mars

If you’ve read a science fiction book or seen a sci-fi movie, odds are you have some familiarity with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars even if you don’t know it. Published almost one hundred years ago (1917), A Princess of Mars is a classic pulp adventure story and its DNA flows through the veins of countless great works that have come after it.

And with a cover like this, who wouldn't want to follow in this book's footsteps?
And that is some badass DNA right there.

The story follows the travels of John Carter – yes that John Carter – as he is mysteriously transported to Mars and becomes involved in a great interracial war on the red planet.

Continue reading “A Princess of Mars”

A Boy and A Bear In A Boat

When Dave Shelton named A Boy and A Bear In A Boat, he pretty much gave away the whole premise in the title. The book follows the adventures of a boy and a bear in a (you guessed it) boat as they take a journey of indeterminate origin and purpose.

As the boy and bear venture to who-knows-where in the bear’s small rowboat – the Harriet – Shelton is able to provide an inspection of how children interact with themselves and the world around them that is all at once comedic, sincere, and charming. Challenged by sea monsters, ghost ships, and the Very Last Sandwich, the titular boy and bear are simply named but complexly envisioned and their unfolding relationship becomes the central pillar around which the story is built.

Ostensibly meant for children, the book should be enjoyable for just about any reader. And looking past the immediate narrative (and Shelton’s entertaining illustrations), the book’s sparse language is such that it can be read in any number of ways, exploring metaphor and symbolism as deeply and personally as the reader cares to go. Shelton’s brevity of language is liberating and I’d argue that the book’s greatest and most profound moments are often its simplest.

A Boy and A Bear In A Boat may tell you what it’s about right in the title but as the boy and bear learn for themselves, it’s not the premise but the journey that matters.

Powers

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Ursula Le Guin is a master of the bildungsroman. A Wizard of Earthea, The Farthest Shore, Malafrena, and several of her other books are among the finest coming of age novels in American literature. There are few authors capable of elucidating the challenges of personal discovery the way that Le Guin does and Powers, the third entry in the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, is no exception.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a story of childhood adventure and, as such, the story’s titular hero finds himself in a number of troublesome predicaments, usually as a result of his own childishly unchecked curiosity. Through Tom’s adventures in overcoming these predicaments, Twain paints a remarkably accurate picture of the joys, fears, and trials of childhood which, in turn, makes Tom one of the most well-realized characters in the American canon. And despite the book’s short length, by its end, Tom’s growth has already begun to foreshadow the end of childhood and the unavoidable ascent into an adult world.

All that symbolic character growth aside, what struck me during my recent reading of Tom Sawyer was the book’s timelessness – and its unexpected applicability to the modern world.

Continue reading “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”