Category Archives: Literature

The Art of Fiction: Every Story Begins With an Ending

alex atkins bookshelf literatureKatherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was an American journalist and writer, best known for her insightful short stories. She was born as Callie Russel Porter but changed her name to Katherine Anne Porter to honor her grandmother who raised her after her mother passed away. Porter has an interesting literary lineage: she is related to Daniel Boone the American frontiersman, and famous short-story writer O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter). Perhaps there really is a gene for great short-story writing…

Porter published several collections of short stories: Flowering Judas; Pale Horse, Pale Rider; and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories. Her complete collection of short stories published in 1964 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1966) and she was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with Barbara Thompson for the Paris Review in the spring of 1963, Porter discussed the importance of the ending of the story. In fact, she believed that every story begins with an ending and that until the end is known, there is no story. She elaborates: “That is where the artist begins to work: with the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. In that sense it has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’ m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”

Thompson then comments that that is a very classical view of the work of art, ie, that a story must end in resolution. Porter responds: “Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature — it raises my hair now — is the little boy at the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he’s afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Kathering Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter Conversations by Katherine Anne Porter
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley


The Most Famous Christmas Villains

alex atkins bookshelf moviesOn Saturday, December 22, a day after the U.S. government entered a partial shutdown, the New York Daily News featured a cover photo of President Trump rendered as the mean old Grinch, from Dr. Seuss’ well-known holiday story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The copy on the newspaper reads: “How the Trump Stole Christmas! Shuts down government over wall to put coal in stockings of 800,000 workers. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But we think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.” Touché!

It’s ironic that when we think of Christmas, imbued with goodness and generosity, that we also think of its polar opposites: evil and greediness. Indeed, literature, television, and film have created some of those most enduring and evil Christmas villains that have become so embedded in our culture that they have entered the English lexicon. Calling someone a Scrooge, a Grinch, or a Mr. Potter instantly evokes the most miserable, misanthropic, and miserly curmudgeons. Bah, humbug!

Without further ado, here are some of the most famous villains of Christmas, in chronological order (character, appearance in film or book, followed by evil deed):

Ebenezer Scrooge: appears in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843); the quintessential Christmas villain. In Dickens’ memorable prose: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Scrooge is a truly wretched curmudgeon; listen to his bitter response to his nephew’s cheerful holiday greeting: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Henry F. Potter (known as Old Man Potter): appears in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946); the Scrooge of Bedford Falls who is hellbent on either destroying or gaining control of George Bailey’s building and loan company. Potter has a heart made of ice — check out his response to Bailey’s plea for help: “Look at you… you used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me “a warped, frustrated old man!” What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk… crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No security, no stocks, no bonds; nothing but a miserable little five-hundred dollar equity and a live insurance policy. Eh he he he! You’re worth more dead than alive!Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight-thousand? You know why? Well, because they’d run you out of town on a rail! But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do for you, George. Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I’m going to swear out a warrant for your arrest!”

The Grinch: appears in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957); steals the decorations and gifts of all the adorable Whos of Whoville

Bumble: appears in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964); the abominable snowman who terrifies all those who venture through the icy north pole

Bürgermeister Meisterburger: appears in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970); bans toys for tripping on a toy duck

Heat and Snow Miser: appears in The Year Without Santa Claus (1974); use their weather powers for evil

Scut Farkas: appears in A Christmas Story (1983); a bully who regularly ambushes Ralphie and his friends

Frank Shirley: appears in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989); cancels employee bonuses and instead gives them a membership in the jelly-of-the-month club

Marv and Henry: appear in Home Alone (1990); two career burglars that scare and attempt to rob a young boy who is left alone in his home

SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The World Needs Another Dickens to Stir Our Consciences

alex atkins bookshelf christmasEvery holiday season, the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, located in New York, displays the original handwritten manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. The novella, written in just under six weeks, was published on December 19, 1843 by Chapman and Hall. The initial run of the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out faster than he anticipated. It sold for five shillings (approximately $29 in today’s dollars). By Christmas Eve all of the first editions had been sold; moreover, the story quickly received enthusiastic praise and acclaim. Naturally, Dickens wanted to preserve the original 68-page manuscript, so he had it bound in red morocco leather and gave it to Thomas Mitton, a close friend and creditor (Mitton had lent Dickens 270 pounds over the previous six months). On the title page, Dickens wrote: “My own, and only, MS of the Book/ Charles Dickens.” Soon after Dickens died, Mitton sold the manuscript for 50 pounds. Over the next few decades, the precious manuscript passed through several British book collectors before it was sold to Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. By then the value had increased dramatically; Morgan paid an estimated 1,200 pounds (about $42,000 in today’s dollars) to a London bookseller. A century later, the value of the manuscript skyrocketed beyond anything Dickens could have ever imagined. In 2017, Dickens’ original manuscript for A Christmas Carol was appraised at $5 million — more than twice what the famous author earned over his writing career (in today’s dollars).

John Mortimer, the former senior vice president of The New York Times, was an admirer of Dickens’ work, particularly A Christmas Carol. On December 24, 1993, he wrote a brilliant op-ed titled “Poorhouses, Pamphlets, and Marley’s Ghost.” Sadly, Mortimer perished in an airplane accident in five years later, on September 4, 1998. On this Christmas day, Bookshelf presents excerpts from that illuminating essay and Mortimer’s eloquent and passionate call for another Dickens “to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed”:

One dark afternoon in January, I sat at a round table in the library on East 36th Street in New York City from which J. Pierpont Morgan once oversaw his collection. A square of velvet was laid reverently before me. Then a leatherbound volume was set on the velvet and opened. The first page of handwriting was crossed out, and crossed out again, the obliterations achieved by a sort of undulating scrawl, patterned like the waves on the sea.

The manuscript was written-over in a way seemingly calculated to give nightmares to the printer whose task it was to set it. The first two sentences emerged from the confusion: “Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” What I was looking at was once the blank piece of paper on which Charles Dickens struggled and had second thoughts and third thoughts when he set out to write A Christmas Carol

Those unfamiliar with Dickens’s way of working would naturally assume that his imagination and his gift for prose, which could rise above grammar and produce laughter, tears or terror at will, would emerge in a stream of words that called for little alteration.

In fact, Dickens agonized over his plots, suffered with his characters and knew black despair when ideas failed to come on his endless walks. During the composition of “A Christmas Carol,” he wept and laughed and one day walked 15 or 20 miles “about the black streets of London . . . when all the good folks had gone to bed.” Years later, when writing “Little Dorrit,” he described his usual agonies of creation: “I am in a hideous state of mind in which I walk down the stairs every five minutes, look out of the window once in two. . . . I am steeped in my story, and rise and fall by turns into enthusiasm and depression.”

These sudden doubts and elations, these sudden changes of mind, are reflected in the alterations and obliterations in his manuscripts. They show what he called “The story-weaver at his loom,” and he was able to write to one of his sons, “Look at such of my manuscripts as are in the library at [ Gads Hill, his country home ] and think of the patient hours devoted year after year to single lines.”

It’s sad to think that when all writers are equipped with word processors, future generations will never be able to discover the waves of pain, hesitation and changes of mind that go into every page of a great work of fiction.

As he set out to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had been an enormously successful novelist since the publication of The Pickwick Papers seven years earlier. However, his most recent effort, Martin Chuzzlewit, which was being serialized, had not been quite as triumphant and he had exhausted himself writing it…

He was well off, yet he was perceptive and humane enough to denounce what so many of his contemporaries were blind to: England’s abandoned underclass, left to rot in filthy city slums and rural hovels, giving birth to children who had no education, no comfort or security and whose brightest hope lay in a life of crime.

Although Dickens wrote a hilarious analysis of ways of pleading for money in Our Mutual Friend, he responded generously to begging letters. He also took practical and energetic steps to deal with the problem of outcast children. In the year he wrote A Christmas Carol, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission had been issued. It had inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write her poem “The Cry of Children”:

And well may the children weep before you
They are weary ‘ere they run;
They have never seen the sunshine or the glory
Which is brighter than the sun
They know the grief of man without his wisdom
They sink in man’s despair without its calm…

In the autumn of 1843, Dickens had visited Samuel Starey’s Field Lane Ragged School, which educated slum children. In letters now in the Morgan Library, he recommended it to a wealthy philanthropist, Burdett Coutts. In October 1843, he presided over at the first annual meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, founded to bring culture and education to the “laboring classes.”

“Thousands of immortal creatures,” he told his audience, “are condemned . . . to tread, not what our great poet calls the ‘primrose path to the everlasting bonfire’ but over jagged flints and stones laid down by brutal ignorance.”

He contemplated writing a pamphlet to be called “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Luckily, he changed his mind and channeled his anger into a Christmas story that would last forever. So Ebenezer Scrooge was forced to turn his reluctant eyes on the phantoms of Ignorance and Want, mankind’s children, “yellow, meagre, raged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate too in their humility.”

So Dickens faced a nation, calling itself Christian with a faith that told them the poor were blessed and that little children should come unto God. And he did so in a way that would be far more effective than any pamphlet.

Dickens didn’t always get good reviews, and in later years he avoided reading them in case they should destroy his confidence and cause him unnecessary pain. However, A Christmas Carol was greeted with universal acclaim. Thackeray, writing in Frasers Magazine, called it a “national benefit.” The Sunday Times called it “sublime,” and an American factory owner gave his workers an extra day’s holiday when he had finished reading it. Even Thomas Carlyle ordered a large turkey and was, his wife reported, “seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality and arranged two dinner parties.” Lord Jeffrey, founder of the Edinborough Review and a stern critic, wrote Dickens that the book “has done more good than a year’s work by all the pulpits and confessionals.”…

Sitting in the peace of the Morgan Library, turning those altered and rewritten pages, marveling at the work needed to make the author’s voice sound as though it were entirely improvised, I wondered how far we have really come in the century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message.

All over the world poverty and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia, poor children live in garbage dumps. In Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed.

And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one! Merry Christmas to the faithful readers of Bookshelf; warmest wishes for a happy Holiday season and a healthy and happy New Year

SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
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The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

For further reading: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/03/28/specials/mortimer-poorhouses.html
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/is-financial-stress-the-secret-to-success-a-christmas-carol-suggests-it-is-2017-12-07
https://www.themorgan.org


The Magic Ring of Myth and the Hero’s Journey

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”

From The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949) by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), professor of literature and world renown expert on comparative mythology and religion. In this seminal work, Campbell introduces the concept of monomyth (a term he borrows from James Joyce’s inscrutable Finnegans Wake) — the single great narrative that is woven into every myth, folk tale, or fairy tale ever told. At the heart of this monomyth is what he calls “the hero’s journey”: a hero who goes on an adventure and in a decisive crisis, aided by a supernatural mentor, wins a victory (or atones with the father) and returns home transformed, able to help his or her people. Campbell often reduced the quest of the hero to the simple phrase “Follow your bliss.” The quintessential hero’s journey, of course, is Homer’s Ulysses. George Lucas credited Campbell’s work for influencing his writing of the Star Wars saga. In a later work, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (1959-1968), Campbell describes the four critical functions of myth in human society: the metaphysical function (awakens a sense of awe before the mystery of being); the cosmological function (explaining the creation and order of universe); the sociological function (validate and supports the existing social order); and pedagogical function (guides the individual through his or her stages of life). One of the most powerful myths throughout the existence of humanity is God; Campbell explains: “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being.” And just as significant, is the mythology of Christ: “It is clear that, whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles.” [In ancient Sumerian mythology, Tammuz was the god of fertility. In Greek mythology, Adonis is the god of beauty, desire, and vegetation. His story is derived from the legend of Tammuz. In ancient Egyptian religion, Osiris is the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and rebirth.]


The Obscene Books that Oxford Librarians Hid for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is a legal deposit library which means that it is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom — including what is considered obscene. At the height of the Victorian Era, the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1857 which prohibits the distribution of obscene materials, defined as “[materials that] deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” Perhaps they were thinking of rebellious, inebriated, and horny college students. (But they clearly don’t understand college students — there is no greater encouragement for students to read particular literary works when they are classified as “obscene” and locked away. College students are amazingly resourceful — and they will find ways to get to the good stuff!) Nevertheless, any library that allowed individuals access to these books would incur serious legal consequences. Students who read these forbidden materials were warned that they would develop warts on their hands and go blind.

Accordingly the librarians at the Bodleian created the Phi collection (the Greek letter Phi was stamped on the spine of each book, although it is not clear why that particular letter was selected) for the obscene literary works they acquired. Up until 2010, students could not review, let alone check out, a book from the Phi collection unless they received prior permission from faculty and library staff (which means, in plain terms: rarely). There are currently about 3,000 titles in the Phi collection, ranging from scholarly or scientific studies of ancient cultures to novels that initially caused a scandal, that have never seen the light of day. By now you are wondering, “So, what did the library staff and the British bureaucrats consider absence?” Here are some of the titles that are included in the new exhibit at the Bodleian: Story of Phi: Restricted Books. The exhibit is curated by a Latin Professor Jennifer Ingleheart who commented, “The display invites visitors to consider the complexities behind what is currently in the Phi collection versus the hundreds of items that have been reclassified over the years, revealing how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” You be the judge if this are really obscene:

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The Love Books of Ovid

The Pop-Up Kama Sutra by Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot

Phallic Objects & Remains: Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea by Hargrave Jennings

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Satyra Sotadic, a 17th century work of European pornography, by Luisa Siegea de Velasco

Sex by Madonna

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/upcoming-events/2018/november/story-of-phi


What is the Most Rejected Book of All Time?

alex atkins bookshelf books“Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When American educator Thomas Palmer wrote that in the Teacher’s Manual (1840), he was encouraging schoolchildren to finish their homework. But that same adage is perfectly true for aspiring writers who will receive their share of rejections slips from publishers and agents. Some of the greatest writers have received rejection slips: D. H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Marcel Proust, Kurt Vonnegut — to name just a few.

Of course, this discussion invites the question: what is the most rejected book of all time? Technically, that would be a book that has never been published — and there are thousands of those. But let’s limit the question to a book that was eventually published. According to the folks at LitHub, the author that holds the records for receiving the most rejections for a book is American science fiction writer Richard Samuel “Dick” Wimmer for Irish Wine (the first part of the Irish Wine Trilogy). He was 28 years old when he wrote it, but it took more than 25 years — and 162 rejections — until it was finally published in 1989 (by then, Wimmer was 53 years old).

In second place is Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Canfield’s manuscript received 144 rejections from publishers. Of course, the book became a phenomenal best-seller and launched a very lucrative brand and franchise. Dig this: the Chicken Soup books have sold more than 130 million copies. Responding to the sea of rejections he received, Canfield wrote: “If we had given up after 100 publishers, I likely would not be where I am now. I encourage you to reject rejection. If someone says no, just say ‘next!'”

Not far behind is Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That philosophical work received 121 rejections. Fortunately for Pirsig, he persevered, and the book went on to become a bestseller and cult classic, selling millions of copies. Who says success isn’t the best revenge?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/23/local/la-me-dick-wimmer-20110523
https://www.facebook.com/JackCanfieldFan/posts/10153285514315669
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books


A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn 2013, Shaun Usher published a fascinating book, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. It was followed up a Volume 2 three years later. It is an absolutely brilliant concept — and there are some incredibly insightful and touching letters. But there are many letters that Usher left out, perhaps because he is not aware of them or he had to make some difficult decisions about what to leave out. Nevertheless, I came across this beautiful, eloquent — and more significantly, inspiring — letter rather serendipitously during research on Jorge Luis Borges, a brilliant writer, essayist, intellectual, and unabashed bibliophile. The letter by a recent friend, American writer Susan Sontag, was written on June 13, 1996, marking the 10th anniversary of Borges’ death.

If you have read and studied Borges, you know that what Sontag proclaims is not hyperbole or excessive sentimentality: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” Borges, was the quintessential student, like a child playing with building blocks with ceaseless and passionate curiosity; except that for Borges those building blocks were the great, timeless novels and stories that defined humanity. Even the blindness that affected him in his later life did not affect his vision, his clarity for the significance of literature — both its ability to be enlightening and transformative; if anything, his blindness helped sharpen his mind, and his memory (he began memorizing his favorite passages of literature). Reading Sontag’s letter I am transported back to my youth, when I first encountered Borges at a Jesuit boarding school. The impact of Borges on my intellectual growth cannot be overstated. The library of almost 8,000 books that surrounds me, as I write this, is a profound testament to his lifelong influence — and perhaps the best part, is that this gift, this passion for books, literature, and insatiable curiosity, has been passed onto my son, who continues the exploration in the Great Library.

If Sontag’s letter to Borges isn’t worthy of a wider audience — especially in today’s world when the humanities are under assault and libraries and printed books are endangered species — I don’t what is. I simply ask the you share this with a friend, colleague, students, or your children. May Borges continue to speak to, and inspire future generations.

Dear Borges,

Since your literature was always placed under the sign of eternity, it doesn’t seem too odd to be addressing a letter to you. (Borges, it’s 10 years!) If ever a contemporary seemed destined for literary immortality, it was you. You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit. Though you lived among us for a rather long time, you perfected practices of fastidiousness and of detachment that made you an expert mental traveller to other eras as well. You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like, “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Your modesty was part of the sureness of your presence. You were a discoverer of new joys. A pessimism as profound, as serene, as yours did not need to be indignant. It had, rather, to be inventive – and you were, above all, inventive. The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer – delicately you added: all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

You have been a great resource, for other writers. In 1982  —— that is, four years before you died — I said in an interview, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” That is still true. We are still learning from you. We are still imitating you. You gave people new ways of imagining, while proclaiming over and over our indebtedness to the past, above all, to literature. You said that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been. If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear. I am sure you are right. Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less then the death of inwardness – and of the book.

This time around, there will be no need for a great conflagration. The barbarians don’t have to burn the books. The tiger is in the library. Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books – of reading itself – be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s 10 years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this 21st century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/susan-sontags-admirable-letter-to-j-l-borges/


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