Would Borges have been a fan of Wikipedia?
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986, 15 years before Wikipedia was launched. Yet if he'd seen it, he probably would have liked it quite a bit. Denis Dutton, author of "The Art Instinct" (2008), has recently posted an interview he and two colleagues did with Borges in 1977. In it, Borges spoke of his long fondness for encyclopedias, and where that led him:
Encyclopedias have been, I’d say, my life’s chief reading. I have always been interested in encyclopedias. Well, I used to go to the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires -- and since I was so shy, I felt I could not cope with asking for a book, or a librarian, so I looked on the shelves for the Encyclopædia Britannica. Of course, afterwards, I had that book at home, by my hand. And then I would pick up any chance volume and I would read it....
Then I came to the idea of how fine it would be to think of an encyclopedia of an actual world, and then of an encyclopedia, a very rigorous one of course, of an imaginary world, where everything should be linked. Where, for example, you would have, let’s say, a language and then a literature that went with the language, and then a history with it, and so on. Then I thought, well, I’d write a story of the fancy encyclopedia. Then of course that would need many different people to write it, to get together and to discuss many things -- the mathematicians, philosophers, men of letters, architects, engineers, then also novelists or historians.
Borges goes on to explain how this was the basis of his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Yet it sounds a lot like Wikipedia. Wouldn't Borges have liked the never-ending, multi-contributor site that attempts to explain everything?
"If you’ve read what I may be allowed to call 'my works,' " he told Dutton, "you’d find that there is a very obvious symbol of perplexity to be found all the time, and that is the maze. I find that a very obvious symbol of perplexity. A maze and amazement go together, no? A symbol of amazement would be the maze." It's easy to imagine him occasionally sneaking onto Wikipedia and seeding circular entries designed to perplex, mislead, and amaze.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: File, courtesy L.A. Public Library.