Letter to Borges: Susan Sontag on Books, Self-Transcendence, and Reading in the Age of Screens
“Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human.”
By Maria Popova
In October of 1982, 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, who at that point had been blind for nearly 30 years, gathered sixty of his closest friends and admirers at a special dinner in New York. Susan Sontag was there. Speaking to a reporter covering the event, she captured the enormity of Borges’s spirit and significance with her signature eloquent precision, saying: “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 learned from him or imitated him.”
Borges died four years later.
On the 10th anniversary of his death, Sontag revisited her admiration for his work and the enormity of his cultural legacy in a short and beautiful essay titled “Letter to Borges,” penned on June 13, 1996, and included in the altogether fantastic 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls: Essays (public library).
Sontag begins the letter, the proposition of which she deems not “too odd” since Borges’s literature has always been “placed under the sign of eternity,” with a sublime paean to his genius and humility:
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.
She considers him a wizard of time-warping and a masterful, respectful practitioner of the art of remix who brought to the inevitable borrowing of ideas a kind of integrity the opposite of Coleridge’s unapologetic plagiarism and Duke Ellington’s uncredited appropriations:
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.
Above all, however, Sontag holds Borges as an essential antidote to the tortured-genius myth of literary success, an antidote which Ray Bradbury also embodied and Charles Bukowski championed in verse. She writes:
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.)
But Sontag’s most timeless and soul-stirring meditation transcends Borges himself and extends into the magic of literature itself — a singular yet equally stirring articulation of Carl Sagan’s assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” and E. B. White’s proclamation that reading possesses “a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.” Sontag ends the essay with a poignant and prescient reflection on just what’s at stake if we turn away from books and reduce reading to a mechanized function of transient technologies:
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 than the death of inwardness — and of the book.
Sontag signs off by tying the two — the beauty of Borges and the beauty of books — back together with her signature blend of deeply personal reflection and universally resonant insight:
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 ten 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 twenty-first 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.
Complement this double dose of literary timelessness with a parallel reading of Borges on writing and Sontag on writing, then revisit Sontag’s wisdom on why lists appeal to us, literature and freedom, photography and aesthetic consumerism, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.
Published October 28, 2013