by RJ Robertson
“Did you read the directions?” A notorious question. It’s a rare guy that doesn’t endure that question every once in a while. On the other hand, when my wife says, “How did you know this was the way?” my chest swells, my face smirks. I graciously say, “Well, I came upon it one day when I had time to check out the possibilities.”
It’s pure delight when a fortuitous stumble propels an unanticipated treat. For example, yesterday, while returning an over-due book to the library I found I had a little extra time, so I decided to wander through the new acquisitions and just-returned shelves. My left arm, unaided by any conscious intent, darted out at one point and grasped a book, “JORGE LUIS BORGES… THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969,” written in large, white letters on an almost-iridescent, pea-green jacket, with a painting of a sprite, in renaissance-art style, in translucent blue on the right of the cover. Below it was a formalized aleph.
All that description—tedious as it might have been—is necessary for you to envision what it was my right eye (the good one) and left arm seized upon. Why? Ah… that is a question locked in my sub-conscious. Sorry, Dr. Freud is out of the office today. What I can tell you is that the very “old-fashioned-ness” (If I may be pardoned a neologism now and then) was part of the attraction. There are those who would say it’s serendipity. That’s a label, not an explanation.
You see, after a heavy dose of what is winning the short story contests these days, the Curmudgeon escapes the dungeon and tears out into the ancient world looking for a kindred (not kindled, dammit) spirit.
A few months back we submerged into The Brothers Kamarozov. It took a couple months to finish, but it felt absolutely revitalizing. I surfaced again when I resumed taking long, deep breaths instead of multi-tasking gasps. Then a few weeks later I picked up Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, and consumed it with equal zest.
I know, I hate to think what all this might be saying about me, but never mind. It occurs to me that I have wandered quite some distance from my subject, but it’s all relevant in a random sort of way. Anyway, no sooner had I peeked into the first story, “The Aleph,” (1945) than I encountered the following beginning:
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity.
Well, that first paragraph (half, actually) spoke to what in me feels, “Hey wait, world, I can’t keep up… [and then] Oh, to hell with it. Do you see what I mean? I have a meg or two of PDFs. of prize winning stories on an (old-fashioned. i.e. from the 1990s) zip drive, a three inch thick file folder with reviews of books I certainly must read, I see new library stocks, every time I go there, of wonderful looking titles I hunger to chew on. If the guys in the white coats fooling around with stem cells can keep me going another two hundred years—and if publishers stop right now—I shall satisfy my longing to know everything about everything. Meantime, I’m not holding my breath.
The point is, however, that Mr. Borges gave me more than a book full of interesting stories. I don’t know whether he intended or not, but I have a new way of selecting my reading.