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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Selected Non-Fictions

(The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-86)

by
Jorge Luis Borges


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Selected Non-Fictions



Title: Selected Non-Fictions
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Genre: Non-Fiction
Written: 1922-86
Length: 522 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Selected Non-Fictions - US
The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-86 - UK
The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-86 - Canada
  • Edited by Eliot Weinberger
  • Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger
  • US title:Selected Non-Fictions
  • UK title:The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-86
  • Awarded the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
  • Note that the paperback edition contains a minor revision -- and a new index. The surprisingly poor index in the hardcover edition is one of its major weaknesses, and so for reference purposes the paperback edition is preferable.

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Our Assessment:

A : fascinating assortment in this treasure-trove of a book

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 29/1/2000 Thomas Wright
The Independent . 15/2/2000 Geoff Dyer
The Jerusalem Post . 3/2/2000 Shalom Freedman
The LA Times A 5/9/1999 Alfred MacAdam
The New Criterion A- 11/1999 Eric Ormby
The News & Observer . 30/1/2000 Sven Birkerts
The New Yorker . 4/10/1999 .
The NY Rev. of Books .A 26/4/2001 Tim Parks
The NY Times A 6/10/1999 Richard Bernstein
The Observer B+ 30/1/2000 Alberto Manguel
San Francisco Chronicle A 5/9/1999 Andrew Roe
The Spectator A 5/2/2000 Raymond Carr
TLS . 14/12/2001 William Rowe
VLS A 14/12/1999 .
Wall St. Journal A 17/8/1999 Alexander Theroux

  Review Consensus:

  Awed enthusiasm, with only minor reservations that some of it might be too obscure -- except for Alberto Manguel, who is most displeased with the editorial decisions that were made.


  From the Reviews:
  • "Weinberger has boldly elected to publish the essays that the author tried to suppress, and political articles that help place Borges in the context of Argentinaís history and politics. (...) Borgesís bravura performances raise criticism to the power of poetry and are as exciting and imaginative as his celebrated verse and fiction." - Thomas Wright, Daily Telegraph

  • "Edited by Eliot Weinberger, Selected Non-Fictions reveals an almost unknown Borges. Unlike earlier anthologists, Weinberger provides the full span of Borges' nonfiction. In the Spanish-speaking world, Borges' only rival as an essayist is Octavio Paz. Both are intensely engaged with their respective cultures, which they analyze and define; both are outsiders and are treated as such by their enemies." - Alfred MacAdam, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(I)n many respects the most interesting of the Viking volumes (.....) The Selected Non-Fictions, lucidly translated (...), gives us Borges at his most various." - Eric Ormsby, The New Criterion

  • "Without the fantastical context that the stories invariably create, the puzzle-making cogitations can seem untethered, almost exhibitionistic in their deployment of arcana." - Sven Birkerts, The News & Observer

  • "(W)hile much of the work in the five hundred-plus pages of Collected Fictions actually detracts from the marvelous achievements of the best of his stories, the opposite is true of the essays. Here accretion is quintessential (.....) Taken as a whole, Selected Non-Fictions is the more interesting, more seductive book." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "One reads these many essays, none of them more than a few pages long, with amazement at their author's impetuous curiosity and penetrating intelligence. One also experiences them as difficult pleasures. They are elusive. They are so learned that the learning sometimes inundates meaning." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "Borges's work has undergone an uneasy passage into English. (...) Based on the evidence of this new volume, there doesn't seem to be much hope of reading Borges as he should be read, face to face, any time soon." - Alberto Manguel, The Observer

  • "Despite a few significant omissions ("Borges and I" and "Partial Magic in the Quixote" are curiously absent), Selected Non-Fictions represents a remarkable achievement, offering the general reader and Borges aficionados alike a rapturous glimpse into one of literature's most fertile and original minds. (...) Reading his nonfiction casts new light on the man, his fiction and his contribution to 20th century literature. Most of all, there is the sheer pleasure of the writing, the glorious sentences and ideas and epiphanies that are his own" - Andrew Roe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This beautifully translated and scrupulously edited collection of Borgesís non-fictional prose works will come as a revelation to those of his fans who know only those ficciones. (...) This book will in turn illuminate and puzzle, excite admiration and exasperation." - Raymond Carr, The Spectator

  • "The range of essays and shorter pieces in The Total Library is astounding, and the juxtaposition of materials dizzying" - William Rowe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His critical essays are deliciously concise (a biography of the Dionne quintuplets is dismembered in three hilarious sentences), despite his habit of using them as a springboard for whatever he feels like discoursing on. It's a joy to see Borges stepping out of his mental Library of Babel to aim his strong opinions at the living culture that surrounded him." - Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Although this selection is superb, it has been edited for the English-language reader, and one should be aware, as Mr. Weinberger explains, that much of Borges's writing has been neglected here, notably many articles he wrote on Argentine culture. But even so, this is a book indispensable to both the longtime Borges reader and the newcomer, neither of whom will be surprised that its author was a man who conceived Paradise to be a kind of library." - Alexander Theroux, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps best known for his short fiction, was a prolific author and both a significant poet and master essayist. His non-fiction itself shows an incredible breadth and scope. Borges wrote everything from book and movie reviews and introductions to books and authors to political and social commentary, historical revaluations, and philosophical considerations (notably on things literary, as well as regarding the nature of time).
       The Selected Non-Fictions finally offers a decent overview of Borges' non-fiction work. Previous slim volumes have collected some of the essays and pieces (and Spanish, French, and German readers have long had access to larger collections), but this is the most complete English-language collection to date -- with the added attraction of including pieces not found in the Obras completas. Editor Eliot Weinberger has selected 161 pieces -- "a fraction of the work," as he acknowledges (giving an estimate of 1200 non-fiction pieces total). Arranged chronologically and thematically, the collection gives a good impression of the author and his interests.
       There are fascinating titbits throughout: film reviews (of King Kong, Citizen Kane and Now, Voyager, among others), capsule biographies of authors as diverse as Isaac Babel, Oswald Spengler and Virginia Woolf, reviews of books by authors as diverse as Gustav Meyrink, Rabindrath Tagore, Ellery Queen, and William Faulkner, prologues to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Virgil's Aeneid.
       The true essays also cover a broad sweep, some filled with Borgesian arcania while others are strikingly modern and straightforward. Most are fairly short, with only a few longer than ten pages. Practically all are worth lingering over; many are remarkable.
       Borges' refutation of time (and considerations of J.W.Dunne and the like) may not fully convince, but is always interesting to follow -- as are similar considerations of The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise and The Duration of Hell. The introductions to Ramón Lull's Thinking Machine and John Wilkins' Analytical Language are fascinating.
       Many of the literary essays are especially noteworthy. Borges' knowledge of and feel for literature was remarkable, and his analyses are invariably insightful and engagingly presented. A Defense of 'Bouvard and Pécuchet', The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald, On William Beckford's 'Vathek', and The Translators of 'The Thousand and One Nights' are just a few of the examples, each one as useful a brief introduction as one can find.
       There are also essays addressing political issues of the day -- so some Notes on Germany and the War, and some on Argentina as well. Borges convincingly presents himself as a Germanophile and anti-Nazi, and he takes an impressive stand against the political currents in his native Argentina. (As Weinberger mentions in his notes, Juan Péron was well aware of Borges and his writings, going so far as to "promote" him to "Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Córdoba municipal market" -- an opportunity Borges declined.) There are also pieces on subjects as diverse as the Dionne quintuplets and the tango.
       Borges' great knowledge, his love of books, and his many opinions make for a fascinating body of work, tantalizingly glimpsed here. (Weinberger whets our appetites further by including, for example, a list of the so-called capsule biographies he chose not to include in this volume -- a who's who of authors we would have loved to read Borges' description of.) There's much that is familiar -- lots of book talk, the great Dante-essays, the well-known considerations of his favourite topics and authors -- but there are many small gems as well. Most of all, the often incidental pieces reveal new facets of the author, leaving him shining all the brighter. Almost each page offers a new thrill and a new discovery. Highly recommended, a must for any literary bookshelf.


       Note on this edition: selected works are horrible things (we always want the whole shebang: collected and, where possible, unedited). Given the deplorable lack of availability of Borges' non-fiction in English we accept whatever we can get. Selected Non-Fictions is near as decent as such grab-bag collection can be.
       One notable omission is the lengthy Autobiographical Essay. It is much missed.
       The editor's introduction is short, useful, and to the point. The notes cover most of what needs be covered -- though Weinberger warns: "A complete annotation of this volume would require a book of equal or greater length," which seems to us just a bit too simple an excuse. Nevertheless, the notes are generally adequate -- the brief introductions to each sections are good, and proper attribution of each piece most welcome.
       One surprising weakness regarding the first hardcover edition is a relatively poor index. Without rhyme or reason a considerable number of figures mentioned in the text are not included in the index (or not all the mentions are included). The selection appears somewhat random -- certain figures who are, for example, only mentioned in passing by last name are included, others, occasionally mentioned by full name, are not. We found this fairly irritating.
       The paperback edition includes a revised index. It is more comprehensive than the original index, and thus more useful: a good index comes in very handy for a book such as this one.
       (Note: It is interesting to compare the two indices, showing very different indexing-styles. The hardcover index, for example, includes many book-title entries, while the paperback index lists most of these titles only under entries of the diverse authors' names (listing only generic or essentially anonymous texts under their titles) -- i.e. in the hardcover index there is an entry for "Barbarian in Asia, A (Michaux)" while in the paperback index the same reference is found only under "Michaux, Henri". Overall, however, the paperback index is much easier to use and -- most importantly -- far more thorough than the generally very disappointing original index.)

       (We are pleased to note that it was the complete review's criticism of the original index (noted with alacrity by editor Eliot Weinberger) that led, in part, to the necessary revisions. The only other major error in the hardcover we pointed out -- Weinberger incorrectly stating that Walter Benjamin had translated Henri Michaux's A Barbarian in Asia (see our review) into German, just as Borges had translated it into Spanish -- has also been corrected. These appear to be the only two changes that were made in the book.)

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Links:

Reviews: Jorge Luis Borges: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was awarded the 1961 Prix Formentor, as well as the Jerusalem Prize. A talented poet and essayist he is best known for his short fiction.

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