When Life Feels Like a Borges Story

This post has nothing to do with Sociology, but everything to do with my favorite author – J.L. Borges. Borges is sort of the best, and this best-ness has been recognized by Sociological authors as diverse as Goffman (in a footnote in Frame Analysis), Foucault (in the motivation for the Order of Things) and Hirschman* as well as others on the outside.

Today’s Borgesian moment comes from the NYTimes book review section, by way of Ammon Shea, who is perhaps one of the coolest people I’ve ever read about. Shea decided to read the entire O.E.D. end to end, skipping nothing, and write a book about it. Here’s a bit of the review:

Book Review – ‘Reading the OED,’ by Ammon Shea – Review – NYTimes.com:

And the lovely-ugly words, words that Shea didn’t know existed, leap up to his hand. Acnestis – the part of an animal’s back that the animal can’t reach to scratch. And bespawl – to splatter with saliva. In Chapter D, Shea encounters deipnophobia, the fear of dinner parties; Chapter K brings kankedort, an awkward situation.

Months in, Shea arrives – back-aching, crabby, page-blind – at Chapter N. “Some days I feel as if I do not actually speak the English language,” he writes, his verbal cortex overflowing. “It is,” he observes, “like trying to remember all the trees one sees through the window of a train.” Once he stares for a while, amazed, at the word glove. “I find myself wondering why I’ve never seen this odd term that describes such a common article of clothing.”

By Chapter O there is evidence of further disintegration. Is he turning into, he wonders, one of the “Library People”? The bag-toters and mutterers who spend all their time there? “Sometimes I get angry at the dictionary and let loose with a muffled yell.” At night he hears a deep, disembodied voice slowly intoning definitions.

“A deep disembodied voice slowly intoning definition” sounds like a situation/character straight out of Borges’ central casting, so to speak. I also love the way in which the familiar can be seemingly strange, and also the idea of finding more and more specific words for things. It’s like an inductive version of the analytical language of John Wilkins.

I especially love that Shea is not trying particularly to get much out of reading the OED – he’s not trying to become a better poet or writer of fictions, but rather “He just wants to identify and savor, for their own sweet sakes, malocclusive Greek and Latin hybrids that are difficult to figure out how to pronounce. He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words.”

*See what I did there? I actually did cite Borges in at least two papers, both times citing “Of Exactitude in Science”, a short story that deserves more acclaim in academia, I think. Umberto Eco wrote a 20 page essay just trying to explain, understand and carry through with this one paragraph story.

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5 Comments

  1. stuffjewishyoungadultslike

     /  August 8, 2008

    A rare and clever friend indeed must have sent you that link. =)

  2. I think the connection has something to do with getting so lost in a text, a book, a library (or, of course, a dream) that in your mind its original relation to the rest of the world becomes distorted. Instead, you get swallowed up in it, or it gets swallowed up in you, almost like the snake putting its tail in its mouth and devouring itself. In this new world, a word like “glove” becomes exotic.

    Does something similar happen when we (especially when we are young perhaps) immerse ourselves in some sociological theorist’s work?

  3. Which Hirschman has written this post?

  4. I, the other Hirschman, do not know which of us has written this post…
    “O Destino de Borges, tal vez no más extraño que el tuyo…”

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