Tag Archives: the importance of reading

A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn 2013, Shaun Usher published a fascinating book, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. It was followed up a Volume 2 three years later. It is an absolutely brilliant concept — and there are some incredibly insightful and touching letters. But there are many letters that Usher left out, perhaps because he is not aware of them or he had to make some difficult decisions about what to leave out. Nevertheless, I came across this beautiful, eloquent — and more significantly, inspiring — letter rather serendipitously during research on Jorge Luis Borges, a brilliant writer, essayist, intellectual, and unabashed bibliophile. The letter by a recent friend, American writer Susan Sontag, was written on June 13, 1996, marking the 10th anniversary of Borges’ death.

If you have read and studied Borges, you know that what Sontag proclaims is not hyperbole or excessive sentimentality: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” Borges, was the quintessential student, like a child playing with building blocks with ceaseless and passionate curiosity; except that for Borges those building blocks were the great, timeless novels and stories that defined humanity. Even the blindness that affected him in his later life did not affect his vision, his clarity for the significance of literature — both its ability to be enlightening and transformative; if anything, his blindness helped sharpen his mind, and his memory (he began memorizing his favorite passages of literature). Reading Sontag’s letter I am transported back to my youth, when I first encountered Borges at a Jesuit boarding school. The impact of Borges on my intellectual growth cannot be overstated. The library of almost 8,000 books that surrounds me, as I write this, is a profound testament to his lifelong influence — and perhaps the best part, is that this gift, this passion for books, literature, and insatiable curiosity, has been passed onto my son, who continues the exploration in the Great Library.

If Sontag’s letter to Borges isn’t worthy of a wider audience — especially in today’s world when the humanities are under assault and libraries and printed books are endangered species — I don’t what is. I simply ask the you share this with a friend, colleague, students, or your children. May Borges continue to speak to, and inspire future generations.

Dear Borges,

Since your literature was always placed under the sign of eternity, it doesn’t seem too odd to be addressing a letter to you. (Borges, it’s 10 years!) If ever a contemporary seemed destined for literary immortality, it was you. You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit. Though you lived among us for a rather long time, you perfected practices of fastidiousness and of detachment that made you an expert mental traveller to other eras as well. You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like, “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Your modesty was part of the sureness of your presence. You were a discoverer of new joys. A pessimism as profound, as serene, as yours did not need to be indignant. It had, rather, to be inventive – and you were, above all, inventive. The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer – delicately you added: all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

You have been a great resource, for other writers. In 1982  —— that is, four years before you died — I said in an interview, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” That is still true. We are still learning from you. We are still imitating you. You gave people new ways of imagining, while proclaiming over and over our indebtedness to the past, above all, to literature. You said that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been. If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear. I am sure you are right. Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less then the death of inwardness – and of the book.

This time around, there will be no need for a great conflagration. The barbarians don’t have to burn the books. The tiger is in the library. Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books – of reading itself – be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s 10 years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this 21st century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Power of Literature
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books

The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization
Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

For further reading: http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/susan-sontags-admirable-letter-to-j-l-borges/


Is Reading Essential for Success?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn a recent interview for Time magazine, Bill Gates was asked “Do you think reading has been essential to your success, and is it to others?” Gates responded: “Absolutely. You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the world that I do now with my foundation.”

Read related posts: Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

For further reading: Time magazine, June 5, 2017 issue.


Why Reading is Critical to the Writer

atkins-bookshelf-literatureConsidered one of the best books on writing, as well as one of Time magazine’s top 100 nonfiction books published, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft delivers plenty of honest and helpful advice on the craft of writing, including this gem: “If you want to be a writer,” explains King, “you must do two things above all: read a lot and write a lot.” And many successful authors would agree: there are no shortcuts. King continues: “[We] read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experiences helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles…  Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life… The trick is to reach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long wallows.”

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

For further reading: On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft by Stephen King, Scribner (2000)


%d bloggers like this: