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On the 110th Anniversary of Borges' Birth
A novel approach to reading
Timothy Shaw (timmyshaw)     Print Article 
Published 2009-08-25 13:36 (KST)   
With the rise of modern journalism in the 19th century and the rapid growth of literacy in the 20th century, the activity of reading often goes unnoticed nowadays. We read prolifically every day, whether it may be a newspaper, a text message or a bedside novel. Nevertheless, questions on the reading experience are rarely asked.

What is the ultimate objective of reading? What is the interplay between memory and thought in the reading experience? The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was born 110 years ago today, where his mortal life began in the penultimate year of the 19th century; his literary life was established along the 20th century. Despite his death in 1986, Borges' immortal avant-garde writing style and insightful examinations on the reading experience remain, and can only have a deeper impact on reader in the 21st century.

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Born on the August 24, 1899 on Calle Tucuman in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Borges was expected to be a writer by his parents. Thanks to his English paternal grandmother, the young Borges soon became fluent in English and began to read prolifically. Possessing a longing for Europe, his travels and occasional residences in the continent also allowed him to befriend many literary figures of his time. Borges' reserved character led to an ordinary and unadventurous life. Though fortunately, no limits were imposed on his mental faculty, allowing him to create freely.

During the 1950's, Borges, inheriting his family curse, became completely blind. Nonetheless, he still became the curator of the National Library in Buenos Aires, where his extraordinary memory was capable of remembering not only all the filings, but also the content of each one. Braving blindness, he accumulated more and more literary knowledge through books being read to him. He composed by dictating; all the while perfecting sophisticated ideas on the reader's psychology, time and other latent aspects of this universe.

Never a Nobel Prize winner, Borges was both a sound poet and prose writer, and was best known for his fictional short stories. Perhaps one reason of his limited popularity is due to the unconventionality of his works: the obscure literary references, frequent interchanges of time and illogical sequence of narration, which can pose immense frustration to the reader. But it is precisely Borges' ambiguity that opens up new dimensions in exploring the reading experience, allowing us to question our attitudes and even more, our very own existence. From "Ficcones" to "Historia de la Eternidad", each story is a manifestation of the Argentine's own philosophy and his criticism on the human mind.

Brief as his stories might be, it is never possible to decipher entirely the intricacy by reading them only once. Only after multiple readings, do you begin to realize the ingenuity in Borges' works. It may take three or five times, or even more, to get a substantial grasp of his wisdom. Even so, the stories themselves are never vexed by fresh interpretations. There are undoubtedly many themes to be discussed, but two theories are essential to the understanding of his texts, breaking down the barrier between reader frustration and appreciative satisfaction.

Even if Borges is known as a writer, one should never forget that the man was also an avid reader. He spent his lifetime reading works from around the world. Naturally so, his philosophy meandered between the mentality of a reader and a writer. Besides presenting the concerns of both groups in various stories, such as "La Biblioteca de Babel", "Pierre Menard, el autor del Quixote" and "El libro de arena", he also succeeds in making the reader question himself, and the writer.

The origins of these provocations lie in the narrative techniques in the text, which can be divided into two categories: emotional and intellectual. Emotional provocations are more easily identified within the texts. To begin with, the sheer influx of literary references serves as a reminder that no one can ever read everything ever written, not even Borges, leading the reader to feel intimidated faced with an infinite amount of books versus his or her mere self. This emotional intimidation intensifies aseruditions and the obscure narration erupt, vexing both the reader's knowledge and patience. Therefore, the story seems to mock the reader, exposing the incompetence of the reader.

Be that as it may, Borges' ultimate objective is not to insult our intelligence. He remounts the reader's confidence with a deeper level of intellectual provocation. The very same provocations listed above provoke the reader to think! In researching into the obscure literary references, re-reading forgotten facts or questioning why each interchange of time occurs in its particular place in narration, the reader actually embarks upon an intellectual exercise. Rather than pure reception, we are invited to participate in the construction and scrutiny of the short story. It is fair to say the author makes no effort to steer his reader through the short story. But he empowers the reader to decipher and to transcend beyond his or her own knowledge when reading.

Beyond the reader's own consciousness, the author explores fundamental factors of the universe that are often taken for granted in our daily lives. Time and space are two recurring themes in Borges' short stories, especially in the later works. The Borgesian philosophy requires us to be skeptical on the world around us in order to gain a more profound understanding of our own existence.

For instance, he reckons time is a countdown system to a finite destiny rather than an accumulation of history. In another story, he contrasts the human perception of time with a cat's ignorance in "the eternity of one moment". In terms of space, the labyrinth fascinated the author, who often used it as a basis to enforce his idea that humans are at a loss in a finite space, through their futile attempts to interpret or fight against their destiny. These unprecedented ideas may initially be unthinkable to the reader, but Borges encourages us to consider these alternative possibilities regarding the world around, consequently leaving us with a lasting impression of his wisdom.

Where most writers merely narrate a story and where readers are only receptive, the Argentine writer seeks to combine both. When reading Borges' short stories, we are not only receiving ideas and implanting details into our memory, but we are also provoked to participate in the writer's thinking, consider possibilities and to tell a story based on the text before our eyes. As centuries progress, so do our intellect and ways of thinking. We should be more prudent when reading, analyzing the relation between the text and the reader, the reader and the writer, between the reader and the world around.

Indeed, his collections were rarely best sellers, but Borges fills in the margins between each word and the gaps between lines on a page. As Picasso claimed to paint what is unpainted in a gallery, Borges skillfully writes out the unwritten. He was avant-garde, ahead of his time. His insight will last well into the 21st century, and it all began on this day, one hundred and ten years ago, in 1899.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Shaw

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