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Jorge Luis Borges muses on his desert island book selections

By Francisca Folch

Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.
Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.

Ever since Daniel Defoe set the paradigm for the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe, desert-island lists have remained a popular setting for apocalyptic scenario decisions. Considering the books he would choose should he suffer the fate of the character, the poet André Gide included Cousin Bette, Dangerous Liaisons, and Madame Bovary. Faced with the same problem, G. K. Chesterton’s sensible selection was Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. In a query made by The New York Times at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ten most popular books for a desert island included “the Bible for comfort, . . . Boswell in lieu of society,” and—with self-conscious irony—“Robinson Crusoe for guide.” Doubting the sincerity of its readers, the article qualifies these as “books of the silent times,” adding that “The suburbanite . . . would die so soon on a desert isle, where there were no trains to run for; that the burial service should be all the literature he could want.”1 Notably, the character of Robinson Crusoe himself did not subsist on such a strict textual diet, since he was able to rescue several volumes from the shipwreck. Aside from books on navigation, he found “three very good Bibles,” “some Portuguese books. . . two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other books.”

In the short essay “La biblioteca de Robinsón” (“Robinson’s Library”), an unpublished manuscript recently acquired by the Ransom Center, readers can now discover Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s take on this issue.

Despite the slightly facetious title, Borges considers the task of selecting these life-sustaining texts rather seriously. The act of reading was essential for the erudite author, who in fact claimed that his had been “a lifetime dedicated less to living than to reading,” adding in his poem “A Reader”: “let others boast of the pages they have written; / I am proud of the pages I have read.” Libraries were of primordial importance to him, and in his “Aubiographical Essay,” he remarked that “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library.” Although he frequently contributed to literary magazines in Buenos Aires and had become an established writer in his forties, Borges was forced to take on a job as cataloger for 10 years at a minor municipal library. The Perón regime to which he was opposed later fired him and appointed him Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits at a public marketplace, a position that Borges declined, declaring himself incompetent. To remedy this humiliation, after Perón was deposed in 1955, the writer was appointed director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires, although, ironically, by this time he was almost completely blind due to a congenital eye disease. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, rumors have it that his conservative political views kept him from winning the award. Borges visited the United States for the first time when he held the Tinker Foundation visiting professorship at The University of Texas at Austin from 1961 to 1962, and, after the death of his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, he travelled widely, giving lectures on literature and writing.

As a poet, essayist, and short-story writer, Borges was known for creating metaphysical fantasy worlds in which men search for meaning in an infinite universe. In his famous short story “The Aleph,” which tells the story of a writer who discovers a peephole that contains all the points of view in the universe, past, present, and future, Borges quotes Hamlet as an epigraph: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a King of infinite space.” A believer in the Hinduist and Buddhist idea that reality is illusive and anchored in the mind, Borges appreciated the richness held in the world of imagination. Riddled with labyrinths, Borges’s texts convey the disquieting sense that ultimate knowledge is elusive, residing in textual codes guarded by confused librarians. The short story “The Library of Babel” imagines the universe as a library, which includes the dizzying catalog of all possible books:

All: the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon the gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all the books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.2

Borges’s fiction often turns into mystical disquisitions that lend themselves particularly well to the essay form, in which his intricate style shines through with polished eloquence. The manuscript of “Robinson’s Library,” which is signed by Borges and displays his small neat handwriting, is dated circa 1940, at a time when the author’s eyesight was starting to show signs of fading. Given his obsession with books as repositories for knowledge—both actual and potential—this brief piece is a rare exercise in minimalism.

Borges begins by setting the rules of his quest, with the warning that the three individual volumes are not supposed to be “the three most important books in the universe or even. . . the three most memorable books in our personal experience.” Since his selection is not based on the desire to maintain a historical record of literature, nor act as a biographical composite of his personality, he finds little sense in choosing books from the established canon or books he already knows by heart. Playfully toying with several answers, Borges is sobered by the daunting thought of choosing texts that will accompany him for all eternity. Dismissing famous novels and books of verse for their dangerous nostalgic value, the author bans texts that discuss human relationships altogether and suggests instead those that deal with “the relationship man-God, man-numbers, man-Universe.”

The metaphysical concerns that appear in Borges’s fiction form the basis of his required island literature. On his last visit to Austin in April 1976, he gave an interview to The Daily Texan where he commented on his writing methods and offered suggestions to future writers. Asked about his idea of God, he stated: “I say what Bernard Shaw said, ‘God is in the making.’ God is not something prior to the universe. We are all creating God. When we think, when we feel, when we write, we are simply creating that being.” In a similar philosophical vein, in his essay he selects books that will provide eternal food for thought, “books that one must conquer little by little and that can populate the unchanging years.”

His list results in a lucid, yet unexpected trio: a metaphysical book (his examples are spearheaded by Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, which is influenced by Eastern mysticism), a book “on history that is sufficiently remote” (Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tacitus battle it out for this title), and a good algebra text, with many exercises—the latter a revelation that can be traced to his fascination for the elegance present in mathematics, and that has been recently explored by scholars.3

The Jorge Luis Borges collection at the Ransom Center includes some early letters and manuscripts, a notebook containing a collection of poems, and five of Borges’s personal notebooks dating from the period 1949–1960: four in Borges’s own hand, the fifth dictated to his mother. The collection also comprises working drafts of a number of published works and several manuscripts of texts, such as the first draft of one of his best known short stories, “Emma Zunz,” which forms part of El Aleph (1949). Also in the collection is a fair copy of his sonnet “Texas,” dated 1967, which was donated to the Ransom Center by Edward Larocque Tinker, an author and philanthropist whose collection of art, books, and artifacts focuses mainly on South America. Illustrating the curiously appropriate position that Borges holds as a unique figure in the Ransom Center’s archive, this poem recognizes the similarly vital tensions that arise in two distant places and backgrounds, the Texas plains and the Argentine pampas: “Here too. Here as at the other edge / of the hemisphere. . . / Here too the never understood, / Anxious, and brief affair that is life.”4

1September 22, 1900. The New York Times.
2Translated by William Goldbloom Bloch in The Unimaginable Mathematics. Oxford UP, 2008.
3This theme is explored in the collection of essays Borges y la matemática (Borges and Mathematics, 2003) by Argentine mathematician and writer Guillermo Martínez, and books such as The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2008) and Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics by Floyd Merrell (1991).
4Borges, Jorge Luis. Texas. Trans. Mark Strand. Austin: Humanities Research Center, UT, 1975.

“The Proper Binge”: Julia Child in the Ransom Center archives

By Alicia Dietrich

Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
The Ransom Center holds the Knopf Inc. archive, which includes material related to the publication of the groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. View photos and read some of the letters that document the book’s progress and publication over several years.

Ransom Center accepting applications for Mellon Summer Institute in Spanish Paleography

By Alicia Dietrich

Petition for summons by the corregidor Andrés Fernández de Herrera, Valle de Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1596. HRC 117, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts collection. Harry Ransom Center.
Petition for summons by the corregidor Andrés Fernández de Herrera, Valle de Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1596. HRC 117, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts collection. Harry Ransom Center.

Applications are being accepted by the Ransom Center for the Mellon Summer Institute in Spanish Paleography, occurring in Austin June 6-24, 2011. The institute is an opportunity for scholars to acquire intensive training in reading late medieval and early modern manuscripts of Spain and Latin America. All application materials must be received by Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

Additional Bernard Malamud letters, typescripts acquired by Ransom Center

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center recently acquired additional collection material for its Bernard Malamud collection, including 285 letters and 10 typescript stories from Malamud to his literary agent. This new collection complements the Center’s existing collection of Malamud papers.

Malamud (1914–1986) was a novelist and short story writer, probably best known for his 1952 novel The Natural, which was adapted into a film in 1984 that starred Robert Redford.

In the new collection, the bulk of Malamud’s letters are addressed to his literary agent at Russell & Volkening, Diarmuid Russell. There are also three letters each to Henry Volkening and to Russell’s assistant, Connie Cunningham. In many of the letters, Malamud wrote his response on the bottom of the originals from contacts at Russell & Volkening and then returned them to the sender. Throughout his correspondence, Malamud discusses contracts, foreign editions, potential movie deals, money-matters, arranging meetings or visits, and sharing general updates about himself and his family. Various business documents are also included in the additional material.

In earlier letters, Malamud is more gregarious and “chatty,” divulging more about his work. In one letter from 1950, Malamud writes that he is hard at work on a new novel: “I’m writing a novel about a baseball player (not a baseball novel). It will deal with a man, an American hero, who does not understand what it means to be a hero […] I call the book THE NATURAL” (June 30, 1950). Though, by 1957, Malamud’s letters take on a more formal tone, shorter and more businesslike.

The collection also contains typescripts corrected in Malamud’s hand, including 23 pages of Zora’s Noise, which Malamud emended with pencil and ink and white-out, correcting grammatical errors. Three pages of a photocopied first draft of a biographical piece are also found in the collection.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

‘What Every Girl Should Know': The birth control movement in the 1910s

By Alicia Dietrich

Layne Craig, a lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin, recently used materials from the Ransom Center’s collections to supplement her class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” She writes about discoveries she made in the Center’s collections and how the materials were used in the class.

As a graduate student, I visited the Harry Ransom Center for its literary artifacts: Virginia Woolf’s letters to her niece Angelica Bell, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the Hogarth Press edition of Elizabeth Robins’s Ibsen and the Actress. I only recently learned, however, of the breadth of the Ransom Center’s resources on social science movements connected to literary history. I wanted to incorporate those resources into my fall 2010 class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” With Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg’s help, I collected texts significant to the English and American birth control movements of the 1910s, along with texts highlighting the connections between birth control and the literary landscape of the twentieth century.

Some of the texts were foundational to the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger wrote “What Every Girl Should Know” in 1916, during the most politically radical period of her career, before she was charged with obscenity and fled to England to escape jail time. My students were able to look at the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of that pamphlet, analyzing both Sanger’s left-wing, feminist activism and the working-class audience she sought to reach in that text.

In contrast, we looked at early editions of British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Stopes’s decidedly middle-class-focused bestsellers, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1919). Compared to Sanger’s mass-produced pamphlets, Stopes’s books look scientific and pedantic, with text-heavy dust jackets listing the author’s credentials. Inside, however, are flowery descriptions of “the sex tide in woman”: “If a swimmer comes to a sandy beach when the tide is out and the waves have receded, leaving sand where he had expected deep blue water—does he, baulked of his bathe, angrily call the sea ‘capricious’?” Stopes’s dual self-presentation as a scientist and a poet is a source of continual fascination for me, and these editions of her books helped bring that paradox to life for my students.

I also collected texts containing fictional depictions of birth control. Perfect for my uses was a manuscript of the third chapter of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group, depicting a young woman’s visit to a birth control clinic in 1933. I love the title McCarthy gave this vignette: “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” I also made a serendipitous discovery: Charles Norris’s 1930 Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. The biblical imagery and art deco aesthetic of the dust jacket provoked conversation among my students, and the book itself, a family drama, has become part of my own work on the period.

Finally, with the help of Ransom Center graduate student intern Stephanie Bordy, I discovered a rich source of manuscript material in the newly cataloged British Sexological Society (BSS) collection. My students read a speech on “Sex Education before Marriage” given to the BSS by Jane Hawthorne, the clinician at Stopes’s Mothers Clinic, and pored over the handwritten notes of the society’s Heterosexual Study Group, to whom Sanger gave a paper in June 1920. We also perused the Society’s Library List, which included a section on “Birth Control” alongside sections on “Marriage,” “Homosexual and Intersexes,” “Venereal Disease,” and “Novels.”

My students completed a writing assignment based on the texts we examined, allowing them to visit the Reading Room themselves for a longer look at our materials. The project was as useful to me as to them, as it gave me a chance to explore the range of the Ransom Center’s collections, both in literary texts and in the cultures that influenced their production.

Click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Your field guide to the Ransom Center

By Richard Oram

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.

Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.

The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.

Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.

The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.

Charles R. Larson on African literature

By Alicia Dietrich

Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.

This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.

How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.

Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.

The Rise and fall of Books of Hours

By Alicia Dietrich

'Saint Catherine And The Belleville Arms.' The Belleville Hours, HRC MS 8, fol. 51r. France ca. 1425 with modifications ca. 1450. French and Latin. Leaf size 4.9 x 3.4 in.
'Saint Catherine And The Belleville Arms.' The Belleville Hours, HRC MS 8, fol. 51r. France ca. 1425 with modifications ca. 1450. French and Latin. Leaf size 4.9 x 3.4 in.
The current (and final) installment of the Ransom Center’s series on Books of Hours surveys the 300-year reign of the Book of Hours as a medieval bestseller, from its beginnings in the fifteenth century to the Age of Print to the Post-Reformation period.

Part I of the series describes the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. Part II discusses and illustrates the most common elements found inside a Book of Hours.

View slideshow of images from "Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace"

By Alicia Dietrich

Video of the program “Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace” will be posted on the Ransom Center’s website once it is transcribed and captioned to comply with ADA guidelines.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Additional David Foster Wallace materials at the Ransom Center

By Megan Barnard

The David Foster Wallace papers have been cataloged and are now available for study in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Since last March when the Center announced its acquisition of the papers, a few small collections have arrived that complement the archive acquired from Wallace’s Estate.

Just weeks after we announced the acquisition, the Ransom Center was contacted by Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor of American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). Wallace was a member of the AHD usage panel, a group of individuals AHD consulted about issues related to usage and grammar. Each year, AHD sends a survey or “usage ballot” of questions to its board members—asking, for example, the acceptable use of specific words—and the responses influence how AHD defines appropriate usage in its dictionaries. Wallace, whose facility with language was exceptional, was enthusiastic about serving on the AHD usage panel, and his survey responses demonstrate how seriously he took his role. Though most of the questions were designed so that they could be answered with a mere check mark, the six usage ballots that Wallace completed are covered with his comments and questions. AHD sent the Ransom Center copies of David Foster Wallace’s usage ballots, and a few sample pages can be seen in the slideshow above.

Within days of hearing from AHD about their Wallace materials, the Ransom Center received a call from Jay Jennings, the former editor of Tennis Magazine, who in 1996 commissioned Wallace to write an article about the U.S. Open (published as “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). The editor had a file of corrected proofs and correspondence related to the article that he wanted to contribute to the archive. These papers provide a wonderful example of how involved Wallace was in the editorial process. Wallace had warned the editor that he would be a difficult editee, but the papers demonstrate the contrary. Though Wallace’s comments on the proof pages are often assertive, they are equally good-natured, dotted throughout with smiley faces, and oftentimes showing his humor. A sample page can be seen in the above slideshow.

Both of these collections were donated to the Ransom Center by individuals who admired Wallace’s work and felt compelled to make a contribution to his archive. This generosity of spirit is characteristic of the enthusiastic and very personal responses the Ransom Center has received from a number of devoted readers of Wallace’s works over the past several months, readers who wanted to give something back to the community in honor of a writer they admired deeply.

 

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