Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Encyclopedia Britannica

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

To understand the appeal of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not with the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even with the countless inaccessible encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read endlessly. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy. He also underwent prolonged engagements with the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scheherazade. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of a reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including me, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges comes from an unbroken line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as displays of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the best introduction to Borges, which collects the cream of his work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more we read him, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony that he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His finest works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently factual narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both men with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps the author along with his readers.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

My browsing life

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The author's library, temporarily unshelved

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 16, 2013.

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

To understand the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even the countless unreadable encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read extensively. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of unbelievable erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy, as well as such authors as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Kafka. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of the reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including myself, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges appeals to us because he descends from the line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as works of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the strongest anthology of Borges, which collects his best work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more of Borges we read, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His best works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently solid narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps both the author and his readers.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

My browsing life

with 5 comments

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)

Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.

The author's library

As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2013 at 8:37 am

Books as furniture

with 3 comments

The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

The Encyclopedia Britannica on style

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To attain [style], however, the writer must be sincere, original and highly trained. He must be highly trained, because, without the exercise of clearness of knowledge, precise experience and the habit of expression, he will not be able to produce his soul in language. It will, at best, be perceived as through a glass, darkly. Nor can anyone who desires to write consistently and well, afford to neglect the laborious discipline which excellence entails. He must not be satisfied with his first sprightly periods; he must polish them, and then polish them again. He must never rest until he has attained a consummate adaptation of his language to his subject, of his words to his emotion. This is the most difficult aim which the writer can put before him, and it is a light that flits ever onward as he approaches. Perfection is impossible, and yet he must never desist from pursuing perfection.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition, “Style,” written by Edmund Gosse

Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2012 at 9:50 am

The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

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