The Garden of Forking Paths
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges didn't see much point in writing long novels. In fact, he once called the process "a laborious and impoverishing extravagance." Listen to what he had to say on the matter:
To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary... (source)
A master of the short story, Borges made an art out of condensing all of the complexity of a lengthy tome into a neat little package of a few pages or so. By having his stories focus on the discussion of imaginary texts, Borges was able to postulate the existence of some really bizarre literature: nonsensical collections of letters and symbols, catalogs of animals and objects, and a duplicate copy of Don Quixote that is somehow better than the original. The story "The Garden of Forking Paths" includes imaginary excerpts from one of Borges' most impossible literary inventions: a novel of infinite endings.
Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1941, "The Garden of Forking Paths" became the first of Borges' stories to appear in English, translated by sci-fi writer Anthony Boucher in 1948 for the American publication Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story received favorable critical reviews and helped establish Borges as a global sensation.
Nevertheless, Borges' popularity in North America and Europe never quite caught up to the mania people felt for him in his native Argentina. Unlike several of the writers who were inspired by him (including Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago, and J.M. Coetzee), Borges was never awarded a Nobel Prize in literature. Not a man to lose his sense of humor, Borges turned the snub into an opportunity for a joke, saying, "Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me" (source).
Borges wrote many, many great short stories, but this is one of his best, and his most famous. We hope you like it as much as we do.
Why Should I Care?
As a wise man once sang, "the times, they are a-changin'." Why, when we were your age... okay, we won't go down that road. But seriously, did you realize that fifteen years ago most people didn't have cell phones, let alone Smartphones equipped with Internet access and GPS? Google, Facebook, YouTube, Shmoop... these are all fairly recent developments, yet we've become completely dependent on them. If a day goes by that we don't use at least one of these websites, we start to feel a little bit nervous and twitchy. When even big-name news organizations are relying on Twitter, it's tough to remember why you can't use Wikipedia as a source for your history paper.
Lots of people have devoted themselves to studying how all this technology, sometimes referred to as "new media," is affecting our lives. Some have argued that the Internet, in its ever-growing complexity, is even changing the way we read. We read differently on a screen than we do on a page, skimming rather than stopping over every word, not necessarily reading from beginning to end. The Internet has heralded "hypertext," a densely woven series of pages that link to one another, so that we no longer read linearly (from the top of the page to the bottom), but also horizontally, circularly – even backwards. Think about the way we read Wikipedia – we look up one topic only to be distracted by a plethora of links to other articles. For example, you might start reading about new media and three hours later find yourself reading about balloon animals (a fascinating topic in its own right).
What does any of this have to do with Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges? Well, as it turns out, this digital culture we're currently swimming in might owe a lot to Borges' imagination, and to "The Garden of Forking Paths" in particular. In fact, the story plays such a foundational role in the mythos and culture of the digital era that it is the very first selection included in MIT's The New Media Reader, published in 2003. What's the connection? Well, as you read the story, whether it be in digital form or in (gasp!) a paper book, consider whether the infinite novel that Borges describes may be the very first hypertext. What do you think? Was Borges a visionary of the digital age?