Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Lottery of Babylon

The Lottery of Babylon by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges tells the myth of a lottery run by the secret “Company”. Centuries ago the lottery started out as chances to win prizes such as we are familiar with today but it soon evolved into “a major element of reality”. First the idea of only winning money was done away with because it had no moral force and the idea of unlucky draws was added. As the lottery evolved, eventually the Company had to assume all public power and made the lottery free, universal and secret. “The mercenary sale of lots abolished; once initiated into the mysteries of Baal, every free citizen automatically took part in the sacred drawings, which were held in labyrinths of the god every sixty nights and determined each citizen’s destiny until the next drawing.” As the lottery permeated all elements of life it is described as “an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos”. At the time of our narrator there is much debate as to whether the Company still exists or even if it ever existed. Some argue “that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.”

I don’t want to tell you too much for fear of ruining it for you but you can read it on line here. This is one of my favorite Borges stories which not only asks what is reality but what role random chance plays in the universe. Is the universe run by a higher authority such as the Company or does the lack of discernable meaning signify that it really is all chance?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Library of Babel

For OUT3's first Short Story Weekend I read one of my favorite Borges short stories, The Library of Babel. Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian author and librarian most famous for his short stories. Indeed, Borges never wrote a novel or novella and some of his short stories are so short that they are only a single page. In addition to fiction he also wrote poetry, literary criticism, essays and screenplays and translated many works into Spanish from English, French, German, Old English and Norse. Common themes in his work include the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality and philosophy.

The Library of Babel imagines the universe as a vast, if not infinite, library which contains all possible books. The books contain all possible combinations of the 25 symbols (22 letters, the space, comma and period) arranged in apparently random order. There are no two identical books in the library. This means that the vast majority of books make no sense but the librarians endlessly search for sense in the books and the mythological one book that would explain all the other books. Young men travel throughout the labyrinthine library searching for books that will explain the origins of the library or the Crimson Hexagon that is rumored to hold those books that are “all-powerful, illustrated and magical”.

It is not very long and you can read it for yourself online here. In my mind the art accompanying the story online is far more contemporary and well kempt than I envision the library. But that is the great thing about reading - everyone gets to interpret the story in their own way. The labyrinth library from Umberto Eco’s book Name of the Rose (complete with a librarian named Jorge Burgos) is more in keeping with my vision of this library.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Once Upon A Time III

Apparently it has been a year since I joined my very first challenge and it is now time for another round of Once Upon A Time hosted by Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings. It lasts from March 21, 2009 to June 20, 2009 and you can choose to participate in many different ways reading fantasy, fairy tale, folklore or mythology. For details please check out the challenge site here. The review site is here.

I was originally hesitant about this challenge last year because I didn’t think that I normally read “fantasy” but as I participated I came to realize that I really do read and enjoy fantasy, I just didn’t know it. See my June 12, 2008 post on the subject here. Author Jeff VanderMeer has posted a fascinating Essential Fantasy Reading List on his blog. I loved the list because it included books and authors that I really love that I had never thought of as fantasy such as Kafka, Saramago, Peake, Borges, Calvino, Marquez which of course leads me to believe that I will like the others on his list as well.

I am going to do “The Journey” meaning that I am going to participate but am not committing to reading a certain number of books. Here are some books that I would like to read:

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
The Castle by Franz Kafka
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

I would also like to read something else by China Meiville because I so enjoyed his Perdido Street Station last year. I would also like to try something by Charles de Lint because he seems to be so popular amongst other participants. If anyone has any suggestions of which would be a good first de Lint book to try let me know.

I also intend to participate in some Short Story Weekends. Borges is one of my favorite authors and would be perfect for that.

Okay, now I am getting really excited about all these great books to read and thinking that I should just sign up for a quest - but no. I am going to be restrained and stick with the journey and if I read five books great.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Worst Best Book

Booking Through Thursday asks:“What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?”

I haven’t participated in BTT in a while or done much blogging for that matter (life just got in the way) but this is a great question so here it goes.

What immediately leaps to mind is the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. I have had to read the entire thing on three separate occasions in the course of my academic career and it was torturous on all three occasions. I understand why it is an important work but not readable. Of course I am not sure that it counts because it is non-fiction (although there is some debate as to whether it should be read as history or literature).

On a more contemporary note, I have tried to read Ullysses by James Joyce on numerous occasions and haven’t been able to do it. I have every reason to believe that I should like it given my reading tastes. But that cannot count because I haven’t read it.

The other classic that leaps to mind is the Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger which I did read. I just didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t very impressed with the characters nor the writing style. I can understand if you read it as a young boy perhaps the teenage angst would resonate but when I read it as an adult woman and I just wanted to tell Holden to stop whining.

I also read the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and the Celestine Prophesy back when they were all the rage to see what all the fuss was about. I just didn’t get it. They obviously have some sort of philosophical appeal to lots of people but they just don’t have any literary merit.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

January/February Bookmarks Magazine

What looked interesting in this Bookmarks issue.

2666 by Roberto Bolano
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Death with Interuptions by Jose Saramago
The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Something by David Liss - I enjoyed the Coffee Trader, Perhaps A Conspiracy of Paper
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (Enjoyed Cloud Atlas)