By Anthony Perconti
I came to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges through my affection for the works of the late American fantasist, Gene Wolfe, who held him in high esteem. I would contend that this 20th Century polymath was the greatest practitioner of the short story since O. Henry. And to be frank, even this comparison is somewhat lacking. Unlike other short story writers, Borges had a natural aptitude for conveying dense amounts of information in a minimal amount of space.
His stories can be typically read in a matter of minutes, yet the impact upon the reader (or at least this reader) is profound. The man was extremely well-read, and his stories reflect his myriad interests; both the quotidian and the extraordinary were fair game for his writings. “The Book of Sand” which falls in the latter category, is a meditation on the nature of Infinity and on the nature of books, simultaneously. This piece of ‘philosophical weird fiction’ is both wondrous and unsettling at the same time.
“The Book of Sand” is a recounting by the author on how he came to acquire the titular volume. Ever the labyrinth maker, it was de rigueur for Borges to ‘go fictional’, by putting a (fictitious) version of himself into his stories. One evening, this Borges avatar is visited by a wandering Scots Bible seller, who presents to him a “clothbound octavo volume which had undoubtedly passed through many hands. I examined the book; its unexpected heft surprised me. On the spine was printed Holy Writ and below that Bombay.”
When pressed for the volume’s origins, the seller contends that he acquired it for a few rupees and a Bible on the outskirts of Bikanir. Upon opening it, this Book of Books reveals its unique features. “I placed my left hand on the cover and opened the book with my thumb and forefinger almost touching. All my efforts were useless: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though the pages sprouted from within the book.”
It is impossible for him to reach either the front or the back of the book. The miraculous nature of the object reveals itself further when Borges is confronted with the fact that this is a slice of Infinity in physical form. “It cannot be, yet it is. The number of pages in this book is exactly infinite. No page is the first; none the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way. Perhaps it’s to demonstrate that an infinite series includes any number.”
A book with no beginning and no end; where any and every language and all of their variable permutations are represented. With such an Artifact, page numbers are arbitrary and meaningless. Upon further exploration, Borges encounters a page number that was “raised to the ninth power”. The Book of Sand is a representation of every book that was ever written, will be written or can be written – a calcified manifestation of Eternity distilled down into the form of a book. The “unexpected heft” that Borges mentions only scratches the surface. He does not go far enough; the ‘book’ should have a super-dense cosmological mass, the universe in distillate form prior to the Big Bang.
The ideas presented in “The Book of Sand” are closely related to another Borges story, “The Library of Babel”. These two works share similar themes concerning books, symbols and vast cosmologies, yet they are tackling the same issues in reverse. Where his Library is a “sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable”, his Book of Books is this concept’s polar opposite. The Library is expansionist and cosmologically Macro, “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite number of hexagonal galleries”, while “Sand” expresses this notion of the Macro within a finite, physical form; dimensional transcendentalism. Or to borrow a quote from The Doctor, “It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside”.
Like any good weird fiction protagonist, Borges cannot come to terms with the cosmological scope of the Artifact and he abandons it in the National Library, which houses nine hundred thousand volumes, a singular leaf in a vast forest of stories. “The Book of Sand” is just that; a small sampling, a single leaf, of Borges’ unlimited imagination. Read his works and prepare to explore the Infinite.