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The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986

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Though best known in the English speaking world for his short fictions and poems, Borges is revered in Latin America equally as an immensely prolific and beguiling writer of non-fiction prose. In The Total Library, more than 150 of Borges' most brilliant pieces are brought together for the first time in one volume - all in superb new translations. More than a hundred of the pieces Though best known in the English speaking world for his short fictions and poems, Borges is revered in Latin America equally as an immensely prolific and beguiling writer of non-fiction prose. In The Total Library, more than 150 of Borges' most brilliant pieces are brought together for the first time in one volume - all in superb new translations. More than a hundred of the pieces have never previously been published in English. The Total Library presents Borges at once as a deceptively self-effacing guide to the universe and as the inventor of a universe that is an indispensible guide to Borges.


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Though best known in the English speaking world for his short fictions and poems, Borges is revered in Latin America equally as an immensely prolific and beguiling writer of non-fiction prose. In The Total Library, more than 150 of Borges' most brilliant pieces are brought together for the first time in one volume - all in superb new translations. More than a hundred of the pieces Though best known in the English speaking world for his short fictions and poems, Borges is revered in Latin America equally as an immensely prolific and beguiling writer of non-fiction prose. In The Total Library, more than 150 of Borges' most brilliant pieces are brought together for the first time in one volume - all in superb new translations. More than a hundred of the pieces have never previously been published in English. The Total Library presents Borges at once as a deceptively self-effacing guide to the universe and as the inventor of a universe that is an indispensible guide to Borges.

30 review for The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    Browsing through this again makes me tempted to upgrade it from four stars to five. Much as I love the great Argentine's fiction, there is an algebraic quality to a lot of it that leaves me cold; his non-fiction is where I feel utterly gobsmacked with awe. His polyglottery, his self-deprecation, his sense of humour and his love of Old English are all calculated to appeal to my tastes, and the range of subjects he deals with in this selection (which is nowhere near a complete collection of non-fi Browsing through this again makes me tempted to upgrade it from four stars to five. Much as I love the great Argentine's fiction, there is an algebraic quality to a lot of it that leaves me cold; his non-fiction is where I feel utterly gobsmacked with awe. His polyglottery, his self-deprecation, his sense of humour and his love of Old English are all calculated to appeal to my tastes, and the range of subjects he deals with in this selection (which is nowhere near a complete collection of non-fiction, although much of it had never been published in English before) is wonderful, exciting, daunting, exhilarating all at once. Borges never shows off; he shares his knowledge with you gleefully, eager for you to experience the same pleasures as him, anxious to share his discoveries with others. Always there is a poetic quality to his conclusions; he draws out themes and literary conceits and distils them into abstract principles while somehow enhancing their aesthetic appeal. An essay on suicide, for instance, prompted by reading Donne's Biathanatos, latches on to the idea that Christ's death must have been voluntary and therefore in some sense deliberate – and Borges ruminates on this until he can reduce the idea down to something exquisite: Christ died a voluntary death, Donne suggests, and this means that the elements and the terrestrial orb and the generations of mankind and Egypt and Rome and Babylon and Judah were extracted from nothingness in order to destroy him. Perhaps iron was created for the nails, and thorns for the mock crown, and blood and water for the wound. This baroque idea glimmers behind Biathanatos. The idea of a god who creates the universe in order to create his own gallows. His imagination darts through literary and philosophical history with extraordinary lightness, and yet at the same time he can be bracingly specific – as, fittingly, in this 1949 essay on how literature gradually evolved from the allegorical to the specific: The passage from allegory to novel, from species to individual, from realism to nominalism, required several centuries, but I shall have the temerity to suggest an ideal date: the day in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer, who may not have believed himself to be a nominalist, set out to translate into English a line by Boccaccio – ‘E con gli occulti ferri i Tradimenti’ [And Betrayal with hidden weapons] – and repeated it as ‘The smyler with the knyf under the cloke’. Sentences like this can have you just sitting, thinking, for several minutes after reading. Many of the essays achieve this effect because they are so dense: a dozen names and time periods fly by in the space of three or four pages. But so perfectly do the ideas link together that you never feel cramped. On translation he is particularly exemplary. He takes the eminently sensible view that literary quality is not ‘lost’ in translation, and that the most faithful translation is not (pace Nabokov) the most literal, but if anything the opposite. Comparisons between half a dozen different versions of a passage in Homer, or – in a separate essay – of the Thousand and One Nights, on which Borges was something of an expert, are for me just pure pleasure from start to finish. But his compulsive reading in different languages is everywhere present. At one point a throwaway reference to a line he admires in Ulysses – ‘Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled’ – sparks the brief footnote: The French version is rather unfortunate: ‘Lit nuptial, lit de parturition, lit de mort aux spectrales bougies.’ The fault, of course, lies with the language, which is incapable of compound words. (Writing this out now, I wonder: is Spanish really so different in this respect?) Borges's interests take in literature, history, philosophy and science (in which subject, again, he finds much poetry: ‘Light is gradually lost in the form of heat; the universe, minute by minute, is becoming invisible’). But one thing that apparently does not interest him is current affairs. Reading essays that are dated 1936, or 1941, one hunts in vain for any reference to the world-historical events then taking place. The same goes for his writing after the military junta seized power in Argentina in 1966. No leo los diarios (‘I don't read newspapers’), he famously said. It's a position that can be criticised, as it often is. But perhaps that's what gives all his writing such a timeless, ahistorical feel. He was in his own world, and had more to say about Laȝamon or Cervantes than about General Onganía. At the least, we must be grateful that he shared his own world with the rest of us. However politically insular, it's an extraordinary, mind-expanding place to be.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Aasem Bakhshi

    Here is a magician who sees through his blindness and makes immortality as reasonable as one is sure of living the very next moment after this one. Those who have spent hours and hours with Borges' fictional labyrinths would spend day after day with his non-fictional maps through these labyrinths. You read his fiction and you desperately want to know the man, the illusionist behind this illusory experience, the method behind this madness; you read his non-fiction and you still want to know him; Here is a magician who sees through his blindness and makes immortality as reasonable as one is sure of living the very next moment after this one. Those who have spent hours and hours with Borges' fictional labyrinths would spend day after day with his non-fictional maps through these labyrinths. You read his fiction and you desperately want to know the man, the illusionist behind this illusory experience, the method behind this madness; you read his non-fiction and you still want to know him; or you ask, is there a method at all? After all, the question of method presumes an organisation, a concrete elaboration, a layout, innit? But what about this unique literary philosophy of taking innumerable metaphysical perplexities and just ordering them physically into tangible, readable, almost touchable words? These short pieces, like everything else he has written, are glimpses of his inner dialogues. At times, the reader is forced to ask himself if these are monologues, mere soliloquies! But then one ultimately realizes that here is a definitive reader who is trying to speak during the gaps between his readings, a reader trying to write through his way into the wonderful universe of readings. In the process, Borges would teach you a lot, and guide you towards many unknown places; places where he is almost sure that you would get lost. But then you realize that his ultimate aim is to let yourself loose into the life of the mind and psyche, where the only guiding maps are the maps of myths. His non-fiction has a short form just like his fiction but unlike his fiction, which has an essential dreamlike quality, these non-fictional pieces are very short energetic bursts. I especially liked his prologues and pieces from last twenty years when he is completely blind. His method is to make a subtle point by blending the world of reality and the world of myth to such an extent that the blend is just enough; enough in a sense that he must not let you agree or disagree with him. Though at times, you can do that but then when you are through with your own introspection, you are bound to come back to him and whisper very close to his ear that you have finally realized; you have realized that agreements and disagreements don't matter for wayfarers of the worlds of myths.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jorė

    "I don't know if I'm a good writer, but I think I am an excellent reader, or, in any case, sensitive and grateful one" This book is as vast as Borges' life and mind. It's a compilation of his lifetime non-fiction works and reading it is an effort not to sink in the variety and depth of topics. Introduction was enough for me to fall in love with Borges and I close the book with the same warm feelings. First essays are a bit hard to read, it's a good reminder that great things come with exper "I don't know if I'm a good writer, but I think I am an excellent reader, or, in any case, sensitive and grateful one" This book is as vast as Borges' life and mind. It's a compilation of his lifetime non-fiction works and reading it is an effort not to sink in the variety and depth of topics. Introduction was enough for me to fall in love with Borges and I close the book with the same warm feelings. First essays are a bit hard to read, it's a good reminder that great things come with experience and maturity. Topics are from movies, books reviews and short biographies of other writers to thoughts on definition of Germanophile, overview of Celts literature, reflections of Dante's works and many references to his favourite books. That what this book does. It is a testimony for love of books, reading and endless curiosity. And it is a great map for possible literary journeys - guiding you through books that you've briefly encountered in school or never heard of at all. And a final quote: "The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges"

  4. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Kerstein

    It doesn't get better than this. It's the only book I've read and reread many times and still feel that I haven't exhausted its possibilities. It's a cliche, but you really do find something new every time you read it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Asmaa Essakouti

    borges used to say that he pictures heaven as a library, for me, heaven is indeed a library, but a library in which i can read borges's books, or if i dare wish (in the end it's my heaven and my library), in which i can meet borges, elmaari, el khayam, calvino, sarter .... and all the loyal readers ^^

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    How can it be anything otherwise. Great words from a great man, putting his life and work in context.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nick Jones

    In his introduction, the editor, Eliot Weinberger, gives us two warnings. We should not see these essays as ancillary to Borges’ stories: in the Spanish speaking world Borges is just as respected as an essayist and poet as a short story writer. Secondly, while Borges’ short stories often read as though they are essays, we should not read his essays as though they are stories. But, although I have read some of these essays before and some translations of his poems, for the English reader Borges i In his introduction, the editor, Eliot Weinberger, gives us two warnings. We should not see these essays as ancillary to Borges’ stories: in the Spanish speaking world Borges is just as respected as an essayist and poet as a short story writer. Secondly, while Borges’ short stories often read as though they are essays, we should not read his essays as though they are stories. But, although I have read some of these essays before and some translations of his poems, for the English reader Borges is largely known as a short story writer and therefore it is difficult not to see these essays as either background or variations upon the stories. A few of the essays seem to be included to fill us in on Borges’ views: I don’t, for instance, find the writings in the ‘Notes on Germany and the War’ section that interesting in themselves, they seem to have been included to show that Borges the anti-Peronist, anti-Leftist, cultural elitist and social conservative, was not a friend of right wing authoritarianism. There are a number of lectures given through his last decades: they lack the literary incisiveness of the essays and often point to Borges’ weaknesses rather than is strengths: he will, for instance, talk about national types and characteristics, such as the soul of the Celts, in a way that is almost embarrassingly Victorian, presuming stereotypes are insights...they seem to negate his general insistence on the particular. And not all the writings are of equal interest: there are many short book and film reviews from the early years of his career, and many prologues to other authors’ writings from later in his career, that might raise an interesting thought or two, but are not that extraordinary. The heart and importance of the collection are the many essays on literary subjects and philosophical and theological ideas. Like his short stories they tend to be short, often no more than three pages. If he writes about an author he will not try to sum up a complete body of work, but just mull over a theme or image. Or he will follow a theme or image through a series of works by different writers, often ranging from China to Argentina, from ancient Greece to modern Europe. He will turn to a philosophical or theological idea and play with it: he has no interest in finding the ‘truth’, but is happy toying with ideas: this is philosophy as intellectual fun and games, a source of amusing and intriguing paradoxes. If he finds reasons to refute time this is not because he thinks time is a delusion, but because he finds it an amusing conceit. (And who cannot warm to an essay titled ‘A Defence of Basilides the False’?) This playfulness aligns the essays with the stories, they are based on the same sense of intellectual fun, raising an idea and then rolling it around. And sometimes an idea within an essay will recall a story: when Borges considers the different meanings the same image will have depending on whether it is found in a modern poem, an ancient Chinese poem, etc, it recalls the ending of ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, where the same passage in the work of Cervantes and the work of the fictional Menard is marvelled at not for being the same but for being completely different in style and meaning. The most extraordinary essays in the collection are the ‘Nine Dantesque Essays’ which bring together Borges’ interests in literature, philosophy and theology, all with the expected wit and intelligence. These forty pages must stand amongst his finest writings.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Just as awesome as his fiction, but nowhere near as pleasurable. Too much philosophy for my taste, but I certainly appreciate it more after having read this. Among my favourite essays are the very early “The Nothingness of Personality.” He returned to its absurd, titular theme again and again, and possibly even believed it. However, he certainly could not have believed everything he wrote. At first, I thought his literary arguments against quantum space-time (“A History of Eternity”) were just r Just as awesome as his fiction, but nowhere near as pleasurable. Too much philosophy for my taste, but I certainly appreciate it more after having read this. Among my favourite essays are the very early “The Nothingness of Personality.” He returned to its absurd, titular theme again and again, and possibly even believed it. However, he certainly could not have believed everything he wrote. At first, I thought his literary arguments against quantum space-time (“A History of Eternity”) were just ridiculous. It wasn’t until I read the wholly masterful “A New Refutation of Time” that I finally understood that which was obvious in its title. Both essays were entirely sarcastic. Toget a flavour of the best of Borges’s non-fiction, I’ve selected a footnote that he attributes to Néstor Ibarra. Note that if The Nothingness of Personality is correct, Ibarra is no more different from the Borges who read the quote than the latter is to the Borges who repeated it. Furthermore, no one is more similar to the Ibarra who supposedly formulated it than you who currently understand its meaning: It also happens that some new perception strikes us as a memory, and we believe we recognize objects or accidents that we are nevertheless sure of meeting for the first time. I imagine that this must have to do with a curious operation of our memory. An initial perception, any perception, takes place, but *beneath the threshold of consciousness.* An instant later, the stimulus acts, but this time we receive it in *our conscious mind.* Our memory comes into play and offers us the feeling of *deja vu,* but situates the recollection wrongly. To justify its weakness and its disturbing quality, we imagine that a considerable amount of time has passed, or we may even send it further, into the repetition of some former life. In reality it is an immediate past, and the abyss that separates us from it is that of our own distraction. The collection’s name takes its title from an essay on the inspiration for The Library of Babel, for which Borges curiously credits Gustav Fechner, the father of psychophysics. By Fechner’s own admission, he codified the psychophysical paradigms in an attempt to support his idealistic interpretation of life after death. It’s really only now, after reading Borges, that I think I can understand what Fechner meant. His idealism was one in which the only reality is our perceptions and the memories of our perceptions. Since we cannot peceive death, it isn’t a reality. Of course this idealism is really hard to take seriously, and its link to empirical research remains pretty damn tenuous, but I have to acknowledge that it seems to have inspired some truly marevlous stuff (not least “The Library of Babel” and Elemente der Psychophysik)! I found many of the prologues to books I haven’t read pretty wearisome, but one or two really piqued my interest. Watch for my next review to see whether I actually tackle any of them.

  9. 4 out of 5

    M.B.

    What a brilliant book. It's restored my faith that a sceptical and rigorous approach to language and philosophy can be combined with an utterly intuitive delight in the aesthetic - and that the aesthetic is a worthy end in itself. Not that I ever stopped believing this, but how wonderful it is to see it so beautifully demonstrated again and again in this remarkable collection of essays, lectures and occasional prose writings. I surprised myself by reading this book in a kind of fever. Usually, w What a brilliant book. It's restored my faith that a sceptical and rigorous approach to language and philosophy can be combined with an utterly intuitive delight in the aesthetic - and that the aesthetic is a worthy end in itself. Not that I ever stopped believing this, but how wonderful it is to see it so beautifully demonstrated again and again in this remarkable collection of essays, lectures and occasional prose writings. I surprised myself by reading this book in a kind of fever. Usually, when I read like this, it's because the language has seduced me into a kind of addiction at the sentence level - Nabokov can do this to me, and certain books by Faulkner, sometimes, even (and this is unsexy, I know) the prose of Cardinal Newman. But it's rare for it to happen with prose so limpid, lucid, restrained. The earlier pieces are more baroque though - and I loved them. 'On the Nothingness of Personality' - this, along with much of the writing on Shakespeare and the Buddha that recurs throughout the book resonates with Borges's fictions on the nothingness of the artist and also of God ('Everything and Nothing', for example, which has always fascinated me). It's been too long since I've read the stories - I want to return to them soon. But these essays enthralled me in a different way, perhaps because they're more gossipy, more passionate, more partial. Borges denounced anti-semitism and fascism, to his own detriment; he wrote wonderful, witty capsule biographies of major writers for a woman's magazine; his casual opinions on certain books are more illuminating than many critical works. I would definitely recommend this book for the beauty of its ideas, and its revelation of a brilliant but gentle mind.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Paul Culloty

    The Total Library is one of those books that once picked up proves impossible to put down. Borges proves to be a man of omnivorous interests, his essays here considering Dante, Shakespeare, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe amongst others in literary reviews, while covering an inconceivable range of topics throughout the course of his lengthy career from film to politics, philosophy, linguistics, nationalism and personal concerns. Like all such anthologies, some topics will prove of greater interest The Total Library is one of those books that once picked up proves impossible to put down. Borges proves to be a man of omnivorous interests, his essays here considering Dante, Shakespeare, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe amongst others in literary reviews, while covering an inconceivable range of topics throughout the course of his lengthy career from film to politics, philosophy, linguistics, nationalism and personal concerns. Like all such anthologies, some topics will prove of greater interest to each individual, but as a collection, re-reading will always yield new revelations not perceptible before, such is the depth and breadth of Borges's scope.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Giacomo

    This sprawling mix of non-fiction works and essays is, predictably, uneven. Some items are superb, others are quite underwhelming. I personally liked the ones on fascism/nazism, but didn't particularly enjoy film and book reviews. If you don't know Borges, you should probably read his short-story anthologies first, rather than this. If you already know Borges, you will read this sooner or later anyway, regardless of what I say :)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ad

    An eclectic collection of essays, articles book and film reviews and sundry by the great Argentinian author - who together with Nabokov is the most influential author from the second half of the 20th c. (From the first half, that are James, Kafka and Proust). I best enjoyed the many book and film reviews, or the articles about literature that Borges liked himself. Although a book of more than 500 pages, this is only a small collection from Borges' total essayistic work.

  13. 5 out of 5

    ashok

    This is a collection of non-fiction works by Borges. It includes an eclectic collection of book reviews, biographical notes about other writers, essays about strange things -- essays about Argentina. My favourite essay in this collection was the 'short history of tango' and the film reviews (including citizen kane among others).

  14. 5 out of 5

    David Nouvel

    Quite an impressive selection of essays, with an unbelievably wide range of topics. A real treat!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Arjen Van der hoeven

    A total library-collection of Borges' nonfictional work through 1922-1986. Essays, reviews, prologues, lectures, dictates. His treatises on time, space and language are downright brilliant.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    A somewhat interesting collection.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Galo

  18. 4 out of 5

    Patri Baus

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bet

  20. 4 out of 5

    Leyla Khademi

  21. 4 out of 5

    Louis

  22. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jesse Woods

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lorraine

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nichre

  26. 4 out of 5

    Exper Delta

  27. 4 out of 5

    Roy Hjort

    A cornucopia of uniquely borgesian points of view on a plethora of subjects.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bill

  29. 5 out of 5

    Calico

  30. 4 out of 5

    Michael Lloyd-Billington

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