Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Anthology of Fantastic Zoology

The Book of Imaginary Beings is exactly the sort of book I would have been discouraged from reading as a teen. No plot, no scholarly analysis required, and in many ways probably seen as a shortcut to "real" reading in literature. Just one author's cyclopedic reference of the beings he has encountered in his life's reading – a literary Cliff's Notes as it were.

But this is exactly the sort of book I was craving. This alphabetic arrangement of the fantastical creatures would have done more to push me toward exploring other books than any teacher or librarian recommendation. I consider books like this a sort of "gateway" guide into possibilities for future exploration in reading; I would have then and I do even now.

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine surrealist-fabulist, not only collects the fantastic beings of classic literature, but also the creations sprung from American and Chinese tall tales, the beasts from religious texts around the world, and the creatures recorded from the dream journals of other literary luminaries like Kafka, C.S. Lewis, and Poe.

Like a literary archivist, Borges records his entries with economy and clarity and without comment. Some of the entries are as brief as a single paragraph on the page, and few are longer than two pages even with illustrations. There are the standard beasties, of course – The Phoenix, The Centaur, Faries and Elves – and then there are the unusual, the unheard of, the arcane (well, to me at least) – The Ink Monkey, The Six-Legged Anelope, Thermal Beings, and Metaphysical Animals straight of of Philosophy.

What makes this book a gateway is that every few pages another creature appears, or a story is referenced, that makes me curious to explore further. The primary appeal of a book like this for a boy reader would be the brevity, the ability to read the book in short bursts, and the descriptions of the creatures within. But I would argue that equal to that is the discovery of a whole new panoply of ideas and sources for further exploration. Though my role playing days were limited, it would have been fun to incorporate some of these creatures into the various obstacles along the way. Or for the writerly sort, a slew of inspirational ideas for story writing. And, of course, introductory avenues for further reading.

My own path to this book was odd. I had encountered an illustration by Peter Sis that made me curious to know where it came from. Searching for books illustrated (but not written by) Sis lead me to the Borges book, which I immediately recognized as a double-find. To turn an old phrase, where a picture is worth a thousand words, this one picture has lead to a thousand possibilities. Not just the 100-plus beings Borges lists but all the ones that will come after through this introduction.

The Book of Imaginary Beings
Jorge Luis Borges
illustrated by Peter Sis
translated by Andrew Hurley
Viking Press edition


mr chompchomp said...

Thanks, David. I've always liked the mind-bending nature of Borges stuff and knew he was into lists, libraries and collections, but I'd never heard of this volume. Must get.

Jan von Harz said...

This is a great findnot only for me but for my grandson who shares my love of beasts and myths. Thanks.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Sounds really cool! I immediately thought of T.H. White's Bestiary but obviously this takes that idea to a whole new level. I'll have to check it out.

david elzey said...

i neglected to mention originally that this was originally published in 1968 and has gone through a couple reprints, but this particular one attempts to correct errors from other editions and come closer to borges original intention.

but seriously, if this was around when i was teen (and it was) how did i not hear about it before now?