Jorge Luis Borges in Paradise

The books in Jorge Luis Borges’ office at the National Library in Buenos Aires were arranged by size and position.

“I always thought of paradise as a library,” Mr. Borges wrote. He was a writer, a famous and unconventional one at that. But he was a reader, too. His father’s library had been “the chief event” of his life. And now there he was, Director of his hometown’s National Library. Director of Paradise.

The books he kept in his office were Webster’s Dictionary, Catallus’ poems, Beowulf, some prose. And they were arranged by size and position so Mr. Borges could easily find them. Not because he was forgetful. But because he was nearly blind.

His eyesight had been deteriorating – “a slow summer twilight,” he called it – since his late twenties. It had happened to his father, his grandmother, too. “Blind, laughing, and brave,” was how they lived and died. And Mr. Borges intended to do the same.

As a writer, he believed conventions were not obligations, preferred everyday words over shocking ones, and read always – or was read to as his eyesight twilighted from clear to misty to dark.

In 1954, he was almost completely blind. In 1955, he was appointed Director of the National Library. “Granted books and blindness in one touch,” he wrote without self-pity.

Because Mr. Borges believed that whatever happens to us “is an instrument; everything has been given for an end.” Blindness was like clay, material for his art. So, having “lost the visible world,” he wrote, “now I am going to recover another.”

The world he chose to recover was that of his distant ancestors. The literature of the Germans and Danes and Scandinavians. He wrote a book about it, poems inspired by it, became an expert on it, “but most of all,” he said, “I enjoyed it.”

Mr. Borges was Director of the National Library for 18 years. He continued to work for 13 years after that until his death at 86. And it was eighty-six years spent using all his instruments to write and read and live without obligation to convention.

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