By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Book of Sand’ is a late story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). This 1975 short story is narrated by a book collector who acquires a mysterious book which appears to have an infinite number of pages. ‘The Book of Sand’ contains a number of Borges’ recurring themes, including the infinite, the power of books, and the idea of an object which becomes an obsession for the possessor.
‘The Book of Sand’: plot summary
The narrator lives in Buenos Aires. One night, a bookseller – a tall man from the Orkney Isles in Scotland – appears at his front door, announcing that he sells Bibles. The narrator invites him in and the bookseller shows him an unusual book, which the narrator finds to be surprisingly heavy. On the spine of the book are the words ‘Holy Writ’ and ‘Bombay’.
When the narrator opens the book, he finds the script to be unfamiliar, laid out in double columns like a Bible, with Arabic page numbers. These page numbers do not appear to run in a sequential order, so that (for instance) on the left-hand side, one page is numbered 40,514 while the opposite page is 999. There are illustrations on some pages of the book; these are often quite clumsily drawn, and the pages are worn and the typography poor.
The narrator guesses that the book is some kind of Indian holy text, though the bookseller tells him this is not the case. He had bought the book for a few rupees and a Bible in an Indian town, from a low-caste man who told him the book was known as the Book of Sand, because neither the book nor the sand (of the desert) has any beginning or end. They are both, in effect, infinite.
The bookseller challenges the narrator to find the first page of the book, or the last page. He fails to do so, since when he goes to the front or back of the book, more pages appear. The bookseller offers to sell the book to him, demanding a high price, but when the narrator offers to give him an old copy of John Wyclif’s fourteenth-century translation of the Bible in exchange for the book, the bookseller immediately accepts.
Over time, the narrator becomes obsessed by the book, showing it to nobody in case he attracts attention to it and it is stolen. He also doubts whether it truly is infinite. He shuns his friends and becomes a ‘prisoner’ of the book. He studies the book, copying out illustrations from the pages he opens at random, but he can never find the same page twice.
He comes to view the book as ‘monstrous’, and wants to destroy it, but fears that if he tried to burn it, an infinite book might create an infinite fire whose flames would engulf the whole world. In the end, he disposes of the book by taking it to the Argentine National Library and hiding it on one of the shelves in the library’s basement.
‘The Book of Sand’: analysis
‘The Book of Sand’ is, like several of his other short stories, about obsession, the infinite, and the power of books. These themes can be found in a number of other Borges stories. Obsession, for instance, is at the heart of ‘The Zahir’, in which the Zahir is an object with which the bearer becomes slowly obsessed, to the exclusion of everything else.
Books play an important part in stories like ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, where the title character devotes his life to trying to write Cervantes’ masterpiece as though Cervantes had never written a word of it.
The infinite, meanwhile, is found in numerous stories by Borges, although perhaps the most relevant point of comparison for ‘The Book of Sand’ is ‘The Library of Babel’, which is about an infinite library. But far from rehearsing old themes in a familiar way, Borges offers something new in ‘The Book of Sand’: even if the story is largely an anthology of some of the themes Borges had already explored in earlier stories, he puts them together to create a new cocktail in ‘The Book of Sand’, whose ingredients work together in a new way.
It is significant, for instance, that the narrator (who has poor eyesight and lives in Buenos Aires and worked as a librarian, much like Borges himself) decides against putting the Book of Sand on the shelf where his Wyclif Bible had been.
Instead, symbolically, he puts it between the ‘broken’ editions of a multi-volume Arabian Nights, that story of almost infinite narratives which involves Scheherazade creating a new story off the back of the previous one she had told, so storytelling appears to be an infinite and continuous process.
Indeed, the process of compiling the Thousand and One Nights was similarly one that grew and expanded over time, as new works (including the ones now best-known to Western readers, such as Aladdin and Ali Baba) were added by later booksellers (fittingly enough): indeed, the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba were only added to the original medieval collection of tales in the early eighteenth century, by the French bookseller Antoine Galland.
‘The Book of Sand’ is a fantasy, like so much of Borges’ fiction, and the titular Book is a descendant of the magical book which is found in numerous works of folklore, fantasy and horror literature. Such books, whether they contain arcane information (such as spells) or are themselves enchanted, are often ‘monstrous’, capable of causing great harm.
The Book of Sand is more subtle than these, in that it appears harmless; but it becomes an obsession, with the narrator giving up his friends and all other interests so he can devote his time to trying to figure out the nature of the book. Its ‘magic’ is both supernatural and psychological, we might say.
This ‘monstrous’ book is, significantly, exchanged for a Bible: holy writ has been replaced by its dark other, ‘Holy Writ’ that is, in fact, unholy. It is significant that the narrator decides against placing the Book of Sand in the space on his bookshelves where his Wyclif Bible had been: to replace the Word of God with this infinite book seems sacrilegious. Fittingly, the epigraph to ‘The Book of Sand’ is taken from the English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633). In ‘The Collar’, we read:
Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
‘Sands’, in Herbert’s poem, are a prison: a rope to bind the speaker, a ‘cage’ or prison in which to restrict him. God offers a way out of such a prison.
It is also symbolic that, in trading his ‘black letter’ Bible for the Book of Sand, the narrator is giving up the clear, established truths of religious scripture for the hazy, ambiguous, and shifting scepticism (shifting like sands, we might say?) of modern philosophy and science. The Wyclif Bible is in big, bold, black Gothic type, in stark contrast to the ‘poor’ typography of the Book of Sand.
The first illustration the narrator notices in the book puts him in mind of the kind of drawings found in dictionaries, but it is a clumsy drawing, as if a schoolboy – someone with imperfect knowledge and understanding of the world – had produced it. He is nevertheless willing to trade, symbolically speaking, the established certainties of holy scripture for an apparently unfinished, and constantly changing, book of knowledge which is altering all the time.
But if the Book of Sand represents this new sceptical and scientific worldview, it is one in keeping with the narrator’s established outlook. When he learns the bookseller is from Scotland, he mentions his love of Robert Louis Stevenson and David Hume, the latter being an Enlightenment philosopher known for questioning the nature of superstitious and religious belief. The bookseller is quick to distance himself from this characterisation of his home country, substituting Hume with Robert Burns, the Romantic poet.
In time, the narrator will come to realise how ‘monstrous’ this new book really is, and will seek to rid himself of it. But once mankind has learned of Hume, Darwin, Huxley, Nietzsche, and the rest of it, can we unlearn that knowledge so easily?