On the Cult of Books: Learning from the Manuscript of a Famous Borges Essay

When and Where

Friday, September 16, 2022 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm


Daniel Balderston


About the Presentation
The four-page manuscript of Borges’s famous essay “On the Cult of Books” (1951) is a new addition to the Borges collections at Michigan State University, in the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections Library. It was acquired from the widow of Donald Yates, one of the first English translators of Borges, who taught at Michigan State for many years; he died in 2018 and the manuscript, in one of the thirty or so composition notebooks from his collection, reached East Lansing in 2019 and was digitized fairly recently. I am working with an international team on a large project on the relations between Borges’s notebooks and his talks between 1949 (when he lost his fear of public speaking) and 1955 (when he went blind); the bits of poetry, stories and essays in these notebooks are not central to that project, which has been the subject of two STS sessions in 2021 and part of an MLA panel in 2022. Issue 52 of Variaciones Borges (October 2021) was a special issue with fourteen essays on some of the lecture notes in those notebooks. I have written several articles on other things that are in them, particularly on the poetry. This paper will be my first on a fairly complete draft of an essay that is in one of these notebooks, a particularly important essay for our field since it is the one where Borges comments on the transition from reading aloud to silent reading (observed by Augustine, who watches Ambrose with surprise), as well as the (sacred or almost sacred) importance of books, from the Bible and the Quran to Mallarmé. The four pages of the manuscript provide an eloquent sample of Borges’s use of his sources (as was his habit, with brief notations in the left margin of author or short title and page number), numerous alternatives laid out above and below the lines of the main text, and an abundance of insertions in the left and top margins, making it possible to follow Borges’s research and compositional practices. In How Borges Wrote (2018) I studied many manuscripts of this kind, but this one hadn’t yet surfaced; I am excited to take the STS conference as an excuse to do a careful study of the manuscripts, which I expect will reveal important new insights into Borges’s thinking about reading and books in the important central period of his writing: that of the stories of Ficciones (1941/1944) and El Aleph (1949) and of the essays of Otras inquisiciones (1952), which includes the second published version of this essay (the first having been in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación in 1951).

About the Presenter
Daniel Balderston is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at The University of Pittsburgh. He is the director of the Borges Center, and editor of  renown journal Variaciones Borges. Prof. Balderston is an expert on Borges, Southern Cone literature, Brazilian literature, and Latin American gender and sexuality studies. He is the author of numerous books and articles. He recently published How Borges Wrote (University of Virginia Press, 2018), awarded the Richard Finneran prize, Society for Textual Scholarship (2019) and CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association (2019). 


Department of Spanish & Portuguese