Borges's 'Library of Babel'

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A Universe of Books: Borges's 'Library of Babel'

By ALBERTO MANGUEL | September 24, 2008

n 1939, employed in a small municipal library of Buenos Aires where the oafishness of his colleagues made him weep with daily frustration, the 40-year-old (and still largely unknown) Jorge Luis Borges collected a few of the reading notes he had made on the streetcar to and from work, and pieced together a short text which, under the title "The Total Library," he sent to the magazine Sur, where it appeared in the August issue. The essay, which links the names of Democritus, Lewis Carroll, Cicero, and the forgotten German fantasy writer Kurd Lasswitz, was developed a couple of years later into another, slightly longer one, "The Library of Babel," which Borges eventually included in his collection "The Garden of Forking Paths" (later expanded under the title of "Ficciones"). The end-paper pages of William Goldbloom Bloch's "The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel" (Oxford University Press, 192 pages, $19.95) reproduce the first and last pages of Borges's manuscript, showing that it was written (in what Borges called "the handwriting of a dwarf") on accounting sheets with the heading Haber, or "Credit," in Gothic letters that magically make the "H" look like a "B" and the "r" like an "l."

Kristofer Porter

Reading is an erratic craft. Judging Borges's book "an exotic and decadent work," the jury for the Argentinean National Prize in Literature refused to give him a prize and, in spite of the support of a handful of intelligent friends, it was decades before the extraordinary importance of the work was recognized. Several are the pieces in "The Garden of Forking Paths" (later included in "Ficciones") that have attained the stature of classics; "The Library of Babel" in particular has given rise to a small critical library of its own. Barely nine pages long, "The Library of Babel" is nothing less than an attempt to describe the chaotic order and meaning of the universe, building on the ancient notion of the world as a book (or a book itself divided into an almost infinite number of books) in which we ourselves are written, and which we also attempt to read.

Mr. Bloch, professor of mathematics at Wheaton College, has woven an elegant, ingenious, scholarly interpretation of Borges's text that contradicts the disingenuous "unimaginable" of his title. In 1967, Borges told the French critic Georges Charbonnier that he had kept two ideas in mind when writing "The Library of Babel." The first was a commonplace, an exposition of the combinatory art that has enthralled mathematicians from Archimedes onward, and a conceit amusingly described by Lewis Carroll in "Sylvie and Bruno": that since the number of words in any given language is finite, their possible combinations — i.e., books — are finite also, and that therefore, in the near future, writers will no longer ask, "What book shall I write?" but, "Which book shall I write?"

Borges confessed that, beyond this abstract idea, he was also describing the troubling feeling of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. "In my story," he told Charbonnier, "there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself." Sensibly, Mr. Bloch has busied himself with the first idea, and left the second one to the empathy of each individual reader.

Mathematics was one of Borges's lifelong passions; he considered it, with theology, a branch of fantastic literature. In his early childhood, Borges had been taught by his father the paradoxes of Zeno and the rudiments of algebra, and his writing abounds in references to magical mathematical imaginings, such as Leibniz's binary notation or Brouwer's map, which, as Guillermo Martinez demonstrated in his "Borges and Mathematics," lent Borges a framework or scaffolding for many of his fictions, most notable among them "The Library of Babel."

In Borges's imagining, the Library of Babel itself is a building composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. A ventilation shaft in the center of each allows the visitor to see the floors above and below, in endless sequence. Each wall of each hexagon holds 32 books of identical size; each book has 410 pages; each page, 40 lines; each line, approximately 80 letters. All possible combinations of the 25 orthographic symbols make up the books; therefore, every conceivable book must exist in the monstrous library. In his story, Borges gives just a few examples of what might be found here: "the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of the true catalogue ..."

The numbers he chose for the shelves and books in his story, Borges later confessed, were simply those of the municipal library in which he worked — and which he himself found so horrible. "Learned critics," he noted later, with some evident pleasure, "studied these figures and generously lent them a mystical significance." Mr. Bloch, with similar generosity, and in an exercise he himself describes as "tedious, uninspired, but straightforward" if carried out in full, asks whether our entire universe could in fact contain this dizzying number of books. Even if it could (if the size of the library, as Borges suggests, coincided with that of the universe), the inconceivably vast space would make it impossible for a human librarian to even barely begin its exploration. Walking 60 miles a day for 100 years, notes Mr. Bloch, our vigorous librarian would only travel a distance slightly less than that which light covers in two minutes. "To cross our universe, which is incomprehensibly dwarfed by the Library, light would need to travel for a least 15 billion years." It would take a librarian, moving at the leisurely pace of a connoisseur, considerably longer — a mathematical certainty that mirrors the nightmarish vision Borges said he wished to convey.

Though I confess that my mathematical illiteracy made it difficult for me to follow many of his formulas and graphs, the lucidity of Mr. Bloch's arguments enlightened me nevertheless, in conclusions such as this: "The librarian's life and the Library together embody a Turing machine [a rudimentary computer], running an unimaginable program whose output can only be interpreted by a godlike external observer." This fits precisely with Borges's intuition that the world is its own representation, a notion repeated many times throughout his writings: As a map that coincides with the geography it surveys ("The Cartographers' Empire"), as a world encyclopedia whose entries already are the very world it describes ("The Congress"), as a point of light in which everything in the universe is assembled ("The Aleph"), and as the goings and comings of one man incarnated in that man (the epilogue to "Dreamtigers").

Mr. Bloch notes in his preface that the ideal reader of his book is Umberto Eco. Unworthy as I am to aspire to the condition of the great polymath (with whom I share nothing but the girth and the beard), I was delighted and instructed by the book's wit and wisdom, and grateful for the guided tour through the mathematical foundations on which both the Library of Babel and its mirror, our universe, are so delicately balanced.

Mr. Manguel is a critic, translator, essayist, and author. Among his many books are "A History of Reading," "With Borges," and "The Library at Night."

Join the world literature tour to Portugal


Join the world literature tour to Portugal

We're back in Europe this time round, and we need your help in setting the itinerary

Hidden Portugal

Slightly foggy profile: Portugal


Australia proved a popular destination for the world literature tour but after almost two months sunning ourselves down under, it's time to move on. First, though, a recap of the delights under discussion.

The big Aussie names flagged up again and again were Helen Garner ("pretty fabulous", says ozzygirl), Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally and Clive James, with Coetzee also claimed as Australian after making his home in the country.

The Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz also picked up a few mentions – "an enthralling read, even if it's not quite as intelligent as it thinks it is," said davesoul.

Patrick White, however, split opinions, "a Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in one" for LeoToadstool and "the greatest Australian writer, hands down" for solidmandala, but "beyond tedious" for devojka and "a thoroughly unsatisfactory experience" for Lowfields.

Randolph Stow found a number of champions, while Dorothy Porter's The Monkey Mask, a lesbian detective novel written in verse which has become a cult classic, says msmary, sounds like a lot of fun.

Teejaykay had some great recommendations for life stories from western Australia's indigenous people, the Nyungar, while ozzygirl said that some of the most interesting recent writing has been by Aboriginal writers, citing Sally Morgan's My Place, Kim Scott's novels, Alexis Wright's Carpentaria and Wandering Girl by Glenyse Ward.

Bloggers grappled with a googly thrown by BillyMills who asked what differentiates Australian writing from other English-language literatures, and how its geography, "with that ever-present semi-uninhabited landmass and a fringe of 'civilisation'", informs its fiction and poetry. pepp believes that Australian writers have "laid themselves out in the land around them. Desert, outback, skyscraper, shoreline, one can hear the birdsong, the wind, the silence of Australia throughout it all. The happiness, the bastardry, the peculiar colour, even the scent comes through." Good answer.

There were a few suggestions about where to go next with Portugal getting two votes (thank you BillyMills and wordnerd7) and Egypt three – although as one of those was Richard Lea we're going to disallow it and go for Portugal.

There are some big names there, from Nobel prize winner José Saramago to José Maria Eça de Queirós, but I'd say Portuguese writing has a lower profile than Spanish (where you came up with a sterling bunch of recommendations a year ago). Please let me know what I'm missing.

And do please remember to vote on the next destination – where we go is up to you.

A new novel by José Saramago.

Death Takes a Holiday


by James Wood October 27, 2008

Saramago's narration feels modern and ancient at once.

Saramago's narration feels modern and ancient at once.


The philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote a paper, "The Makropulos Case," in which he argued that eternal life would be so tedious that no one could bear it. According to Williams, the constancy that defines an eternal self would entail an infinite desert of repetitive experiences, lest the self be so altered as to be emptied of any definition. That is why, in the play by Karel Capek from which Williams takes his title, the three-hundred-and-forty-two-year-old Elina Makropulos, having imbibed the elixir of eternal life since the age of forty-two, chooses to discontinue the regimen, and dies. Life needs death to constitute its meaning; death is the black period that orders the syntax of life.

In "Death with Interruptions" (translated, from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt; $24), José Saramago, a writer whose long, uninterrupted sentences are relative strangers to the period, has produced a novel that functions as a thought experiment in the Capek/Williams field. (His novel makes no explicit allusion to either.) At midnight on one New Year's Eve, in a nameless, landlocked country of about ten million inhabitants, Death declares a truce with humanity, a self-interruption, so as to give people an idea of what it would be like to live forever. At first, of course, people are euphoric:

Having lived, until those days of confusion, in what they had imagined to be the best of all possible and probable worlds, they were discovering, with delight, that the best, the absolute best, was happening right now, right there, at the door of their house, a unique and marvelous life without the daily fear of parca's creaking scissors, immortality in the land that gave us our being, safe from any metaphysical awkwardnesses and free to everyone, with no sealed orders to open at the hour of our death, announcing at that crossroads where dear companions in this vale of tears known as earth were forced to part and set off for their different destinations in the next world, you to paradise, you to purgatory, you down to hell.

But "awkwardnesses"—metaphysical, political, pragmatic—soon reënter. The Catholic Church is the first institution to sense a danger. The Cardinal phones the Prime Minister to point out that "without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church." For the Cardinal, life without death is tantamount to God's willing His own demise. Life without death abolishes the soul. A panel of philosophers and clergymen is convened, and both sides agree that religion needs death "as much as we need bread to eat." Life without death is like life without God, one churchman says, because "if human beings do not die then everything will be permissible." (This is a version of the Dostoyevskian fear that without God everything is permitted.) One philosopher, sounding like the slyly secular Saramago, suggests that since death was "clearly the only agricultural implement god possessed with which to plough the roads that would lead to his kingdom, the obvious, irrefutable conclusion is that the entire holy story ends, inevitably, in a cul-de-sac."

A country in which no one dies inevitably becomes a Malthusian zoo. Old people who were on the brink of death on New Year's Eve simply remain on the brink, frozen in their desuetude. Undertakers, those selling life-insurance policies, and the directors of hospitals and old people's homes are variously threatened with unemployment or overactivity. The state will soon be unable to pay for the maintenance of its citizens. And although this sudden utopia may now be the very best of all possible worlds, humans can always be relied upon to wreck utopias. Families with aged, infirm members realize that they need death to save them from an eternity of bedside care. Since death has not been suspended in neighboring countries, the obvious solution is to transport ailing Grandpa over the border, where death will do its business. A Mafia-like organization takes over these death runs, an operation secretly connived in by the government, since no state can afford infinite expansion. As the Prime Minister warns the King, "If we don't start dying again, we have no future."

"Death with Interruptions" is a small-ish, toothy addition to a great novelist's work. It efficiently mobilizes its hypothetical test case, and quickly generates a set of sharp theological and metaphysical questions about the desirability of utopia, the possibility of Heaven, and the true foundation of religion. Recent work by Saramago has tended toward the sparely allegorical, with nameless, universal actors in place of individual characters. These books would be baldly essayistic were it not for Saramago's extraordinary sentences, and the subtlety of their narration. In the absence of vivid fictional people, Saramago's sentences, in which a narrator or group of narrators is always strongly present, constitute a kind of community of their own: they are highly peopled.

Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés. "It is said that one cannot have everything in life," the narrator of "Death with Interruptions" tells us, and he adds, "That's how life is, what it gives with one hand one day, it takes away with the other." The narrator of a previous novel announces, "Fame, alas, is a breeze that both comes and goes, it is a weather vane that turns both to the north and to the south." And elsewhere: "It has been said, from classical times onwards, that fortune favours the bold." These platitudes are neither quite validated nor disowned; they are ironized by the obvious gap that exists between the knowing postmodern Nobel laureate writing his fictions and the person or persons seemingly narrating those fictions.

The run-on style is an important part of that irony: the breathlessness lends a sense of chatty unruliness, as if different people were breaking in to have their say. A single long sentence often seems to have been written by different voices, and the unpunctuated welter allows for sly twists and turns, as when a cliché catches itself in the act of being a cliché, and atones: "Such a man, apart from rare exceptions which have no place in this story, will never be more than a poor devil, it's odd that we always say poor devil and never poor god." In the sentence about the people's early euphoria when death is suspended, notice that a poetic image for the Grim Reaper ("parca's creaking scissors") gives way to a more ordinary image ("sealed orders to open at the hour of our death") and then to a frank, weary cliché ("this vale of tears known as earth"), and that this progression allows for the simultaneous presence of the writer, who has his images, and the people he is writing about, who have theirs. And a magical exchange occurs: by the time we reach the end of that sentence about death, the fancy mythical image seems somehow much less powerful than the most banal image.

Saramago's narration thus feels modern and ancient at once. The writer is self-consciously at work, constantly drawing attention to the narration, yet the narration seems to dip easily into a universal knapsack, to flourish its bony, wise truths. It is this cunningly modest approach that allows Saramago to write his speculative and fantastical fictions as if they were the most likely events, and to give them a solid literalism—an unnamed country gripped by an epidemic of blindness, the Iberian Peninsula broken off from the European continent and turned into a huge floating island, a man walking the streets of Lisbon who is both undeniably real and a literary ghost. His work is in some ways closer to that of an ancient satirist like Lucian, whose sketches imagine people travelling to the moon or to Hades, or the gods squabbling among themselves, than to that of any contemporary novelist. When, in Saramago's new novel, Death finally decides to end her "interruption" and let mortality have its way again, the Church, which had been praying for such a restoration, is pleased: "The prayers had taken nearly eight months to reach heaven, but when you think that it takes six months to reach the planet mars, then heaven, as you can imagine, must be much farther off, three thousand million light-years from earth, in round numbers." That prodding voice, with its anti-theological bias, is reminiscent not only of Lucian but of the Lucianic Leon Battista Alberti, whose fifteenth-century satire "Momus" imagines the chaos that might ensue in Heaven if everyone asked God to answer a prayer at the same time.

Saramago's brief novel provokes similar questions. If eternal life could not possibly work on earth, why is heavenly eternity so ardently to be desired? Perhaps it is because we desperately hope that Heaven will be the same as earth but also very different, given that man ruins Edens. For Saramago, as for Bernard Williams, the problem is not just that humans are natural-born utopia-killers; it is that eternity itself —life forever uninterrupted—seems unbearable. And Saramago does more than tease Dostoyevsky in this novel. For if the disappearance of God means that "everything is permitted," and the disappearance of death means that everything is permitted, then, by the novelist's tacit catechism, God must be death, and death must be God. No wonder religion needs death: death is the one God we can believe in.

Saramago is drawn to these Gnostic inversions. In perhaps his greatest book, "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" (1991), the novelist, characteristically, tells the story of Jesus' life and death without changing any of the famous facts, while at the same time turning the theology of the Gospels upside down. One day, Jesus' father, Joseph, overhears some soldiers talking about Herod's orders to kill all children under the age of three. He races home to hide his wife and newborn son, but neglects to warn the rest of the village. For this sin, an angel later tells Mary, Joseph will suffer. And what about my son? she asks the angel. "The angel said, A father's guilt falls on the heads of his children, and the shadow of Joseph's guilt already darkens his son's brow," Saramago writes. In time, Joseph is captured by Roman soldiers putting down a rebellion and is crucified along with thirty-nine other Jews. Jesus, in turn, becomes obsessed with a sense of inherited guilt, and with the idea, as he puts it, that "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem." On the strength of a lightning strike from the storyteller's blasphemous finger, Saramago turns a familiar theological conundrum—the "good" God who brings Jesus into the world is also the "bad" God who permits the massacre of innocent babies—into a deep crux. Suddenly, Jesus is cursed by a form of original sin, and his sacrifice on the Cross becomes not an expiation of man's sin but an inheriting of it: he is following in his father's footsteps, cursed by his patrilineage. "God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit" is how the narrator puts it. On the Cross, hearing his heavenly Father declaim from the clouds, "This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased," Jesus bursts out, "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." It is the novel's final, and most wicked, inversion.

"The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" was enormously controversial in Catholic Portugal (Jesus sleeps, and lives, with Mary Magdalene), but it is the most pious of blasphemous books. Behind its savage ironies, Saramago seems to do no more than take the Incarnation as seriously as possible: if Jesus was born a man, he seems to say, then he inherits everything man is prey to, including sin, which comes from God anyway. The stakes are very high, but the authorial temperament is mild, quizzical, seasoned. And what if God were the Devil? the author seems to ask, gently peering at us through his dark-rimmed, television-size spectacles. He is in some ways the least fantastical of novelists, because he so relentlessly persists with his fictional hypotheses, following them through to large, humane conclusions. His new novel gradually becomes less and less conceptual, and increasingly affecting, without ever becoming in any conventional sense realistic, or even plausible.

He pictures Death for us as an embodied female absence, a skeleton in a sheet who lives in a frigid, subterranean room, accompanied only by her much used scythe. (He also denies her a capital "D.") After her seven months of self-interruption, this gloomy goddess sends a letter to a TV station, announcing that she is ending her experiment, because humans have acted so "deplorably." People will die again at the old rate, which is about three hundred a day. Under the new rules, those citizens whose time is up will be given one week's notice: each will receive a violet-colored letter, a notice of termination from Death herself. This apparently humane concession—the nominee now has time to take his leave, get his estate in order, and so on—is of course unbearably cruel, since most people would rather be surprised by death than condemned to it.

One such nominee, a fifty-year-old cellist, bewilders the goddess. Death has selected him for termination, but the violet-colored letter is returned to sender, again and again; the cellist seems to refuse his orders. In a series of unexpectedly beautiful scenes, Death, much perplexed, insinuates herself into the cellist's apartment, and sits quietly watching him while he sleeps; she sees how he gets up in the night to get a glass of water and let the dog out, sees a Bach suite (No. 6) on his chair, and so on. It is the cellist's time to die—"the time prescribed for them at birth has expired"—but Death seems to have no power over this "perfectly ordinary man, neither ugly nor handsome." In an earlier novel to which the new one is an obvious companion, "All the Names," a modest clerk similarly becomes obsessed with a perfectly ordinary citizen, a woman whose name on a birth certificate catches him by surprise one evening at his workplace, the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. As in the new novel, the clerk selects one citizen from the ranks of the ever-dying and living, and gradually, without ever naming her (the cellist likewise goes unnamed), endows her with metaphysical particularity.

This is what the novelist does, too: he takes a name, a character, a person, and saves her from wordless oblivion through the irradiation of words. But he can also kill her whenever he pleases: every novel is "interrupted" simply because it ends. We speak of omniscient authorial power because writers have the power of life and death over their "names." The clerk in "All the Names," who is known only as Senhor José, shares his first name with the novelist. In his new novel, Saramago again asks us to reflect on the storyteller's godlike powers. When Death's letter is published in the newspapers, a grammarian is consulted, and notes its "chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas. . . ." Death writes like José Saramago. As Death watches the cellist drink, Saramago writes that she looked at the water "and made an effort to imagine what it must be like to feel thirsty, but failed." The reader wonders: if Death cannot imagine thirst, can she possibly imagine death? And can the novelist? One answer that Saramago offers—it is the wide, universal, antique truth toward which his complex fiction has been travelling—is that if we neither recoil from death nor religiously long to vanquish it, but, rather, accept the old actuality that in the midst of life we are in death, then death surrounds us like life, and to imagine death is really to imagine life.

You Never Know What You'll Find in a Book

The New York Times 
You Never Know What You'll Find in a Book
Published: December 19, 2008

We may never fully understand what prompts people to leave unusual objects inside books. I speak of the slice of fried bacon that the novelist Reynolds Price once found nestled within the pages of a volume in the Duke University library. I speak of the letter that ran: "Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here," which the playwright Mark O'Donnell found some years ago in a used paperback. I speak of any of those bizarre objects — scissors, a used Q-tip, a bullet, a baby's tooth, drugs, pornography and 40 $1,000 bills — that have been discovered by the employees of secondhand bookstores, according to The Wall Street Journal and AbeBooks.com. Mystery surrounds these deposits like darkness.

But the motives of some depositors — the novelist David Bowman, for instance — are knowable. "I was cleaning out a drawer and thought, Let's do something with this," Bowman said of the day four years ago when he stumbled upon all of the rejection letters from agents and editors about his first novel, "Let the Dog Drive" (1993). "Some of the letters were nasty," he said in a phone interview. So Bowman scooped them up, tucked them in between the pages of a first edition of the book and sold the noxious bundle to the Strand, New York City's famous used-book store. "It was very liberating," Bowman said. "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Bowman's quest for vengeance is on the far end of the book-stuffing spectrum. More commonly, the stuffers are trying to create an aide-mémoire for themselves. "I have filled books with flowers I've received, to save the ­flowers in dried form and to remember the happy moment of receiving them," Anne Rice said in an e-mail message. After Wayne Koestenbaum interviewed Vanessa Redgrave at a hotel bar about her role in the movie "Mrs. Dalloway," he took Redgrave's lipsticky napkin and placed it in the paperback copy of the novel he'd brought with him. That Redgrave's lipstick traces might have besmirched his book seems not to have fazed him. "I might have also taken her swizzle stick," he confessed.

In "Never Do That to a Book," an essay in her collection "Ex Libris," Anne Fadimansays that these aides-­mémoires are often specific to the book owner's profession. Fadiman writes about a landscape architect who "savors the very smell of the dirt embedded in his botany texts; it is the alluvium of his life's work." She also mentions a science writer whose copy of "Birds of Yosemite and the East Slope" contains an owl feather and the tip of a squirrel's tail — remnants of an ­animal-on-animal smackdown — and whose copy of "Mammals of the World" has been "enhanced" by the "excremental splotches" of a band-tailed pigeon that perched on the book while learning to fly. Blurry grows the line between litter box and litter books.

Sometimes things get lost in books. The novelist Diana Abu-Jaber recalled putting a favorite photograph of a friend's greyhound inside her copy of M. F. K. Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" — and then promptly leaving the book on a plane. ("I hope it comforts someone who's afraid of flying," she wrote in an e-mail message.) Similarly, the musician Dan Zanes once used a book to store a prized possession given him by his mother — a rare photograph of J. D. Salinger, taken by Mrs. Zanes's mentor, the German photographer Lotte Jacobi. "I'm sure it's safe, but I have no idea where it's safe," Zanes said. "Not in any book that I currently own, that's for sure."

Sherman Alexie figured out a way around botched safekeeping during his hard-drinking college days at Gonzaga and Washington State Universities in the 1980s. Fearful that he would spend all his money during a bender, he would "slide tens and twenties into random books in my apartment." Months later, having forgotten about the money, he'd find it again. "It was like winning little jackpots," he wrote in an e-mail message, adding, "I'm sober now, have been sober for many years, and I keep my money in banks."

The cadre of book-depositers is not without its stylists. The comedian Jean Villepique, who played Tracy Morgan's therapist on "30 Rock," says she likes to slam insects between the pages of library books and then return the corpse-laden tomes. "I like to think that someone will get to Page 62 and think, "Eww!" and then, "Who?" Villepique said in an e-mail message. She preys only on small bugs that land on the page voluntarily — mostly gnats ("like a little dust poof") and mosquitoes, whether unfed ("neat and dry") or bloody ("page joiners"). But Villepique warns that if any cockroach in her Los Angeles apartment "dares to creep near my copy of 'Collapse,' by Jared Diamond, I will kill, knowing that my behavior and the roach's existence are both causes of the collapse of our society."

Who knows what puzzling items lurk, or soon will, on the bookshelves of the world? Well, Meg Wolitzer gave advance warning of one. In the early '70s, during her freshman year at Smith, she and a friend got "punch-drunk" from too much studying in the library one night. "To entertain ourselves on a break, we took out a sheet of lined paper and wrote a 'diary entry' for one 'S. Plath' ('Saw the most delicate bell jar today in an antique store. . . .')," Wolitzer wrote in an e-mail message. The pair gave the document a 1950s date, then placed it between the pages of a reference book, "and left it there to age and corrode and finally be discovered."

Wolitzer added, "To my knowledge and to my relief, it has not been."

Henry Alford is the author of "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)," to be published next month.

temos que engolir...

 06 janeiro 2009
folha de sp


Os acentos diferenciais de 'pelo', 'polo' e 'pera' já vão tarde!


O Acordo passou o facão nos acentos diferenciais. Mantiveram-se só os de "pôde" e "pôr".
O diferencial de "pôde" é de timbre (fechado, no caso) e distingue "ele pôde" de "ele pode".
O circunflexo da forma verbal "pôr" a distingue da preposição homógrafa (átona) "por".
Os demais acentos diferenciais foram sumariamente eliminados pelo Acordo. Deixaram de existir as seguintes grafias: "pára" (do verbo "parar"), "pêlo/s" (substantivos), "pélo", "pélas" e "péla" (do verbo "pelar"), "pólo/s", "pôlo/s" e "pêra" (substantivos). Esses acentos se justificavam pelos correspondentes homógrafos átonos: "para" (preposição), "pelo" (combinação de preposição e artigo), "polo" (combinação arcaica de preposição e artigo) e "pera" (preposição arcaica).
Com exceção do acento na forma verbal "para", os demais já vão tarde. O de "para" fará falta em alguns casos. Um título como "Trânsito pesado para Recife" será ambíguo, portanto não deverá ser publicado.
Por fim, uma novidade: é opcional o acento em "forma" (sinônimo de "molde"). É isso.