A Response to “On the Cult of Books”

In his essay, “On the Cult of Books,” Jorge Luis Borges confirms earlier sentiments that map all of life onto the pages of an almighty book that stretches far beyond human comprehension. This type of book is radically different from our modern conventional understandings of “the book.” It removes agency from humanity in order to spotlight the presence of something beyond us, even as we, too, write on the pages of this book. Indeed, Borges introduces various notions of books in religion, including in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Interestingly, what he does not mention is the intricate interweaving of spoken and written word in many religions, including Christianity. The beginning of John’s Gospel names God as the Word – though whether this word is spoken, written, or both goes unvoiced. Unlike at the beginning of the Jewish scriptures, in John’s Gospel, God is not merely speaking. He is also present in the written word, and, via extrapolation, all of the world, laid open on the pages of the divine book that Galileo envisioned when he called the world a universal book. The perhaps-strange idea of this universal book is how Thomas Browne, in 1642, can speak of the two books of the world, which are here subdivided into two pages of the same book: “besides that written by God, another of His servant Nature” (Borges 361). Whereas Browne divided the world into two books, however, Galileo saw it as one.

Galileo’s idea of the world as a universal book unites the two books Browne describes. It erases sharp delineations between nature, life, and language. Instead, each melts into the others; there is no description without lived experience, and no experience of life in nature without a linguistic way to make sense of it. The universal book goes beyond ink on pages, though it encompasses the book as object as well. It questions the very purpose of books – ostensibly, to communicate and to share our perceptions of the world with other people, both of which do not require physical objects named “books.” The universal book communicates the splendors of nature, for example, when we gaze upon a majestic sunset or look down from a mountaintop, where the whole world is, seemingly, sprawled out before our eyes. The picture in this post encapsulates how all of the world is enveloped in the universal book – trees, a sea, and a snow-covered landscape all fill the pages of this book. They seem to be birthed from the spine of the book, but this spine is an ambiguous one that eludes precise description, highlighting the place of mystery within the world.

[Image Description: A book is lying open on a wood background. A tree on a grass-filled landscape, a snowy and foggy mountain, and a sea are all coming out of the pages of the book. The spine is connecting the landscapes and is filled with white air and floating particles of the pages. The book itself appears old and worn.]

In the world of the universal book, mystery features prominently, for we are simultaneously the authors, preservers, and readers of a book that is rarely visible in the world about us. In this sense, Galileo’s universal book is an anthology, written and edited – intentionally or not – by each person in the world, through each and every action. Yet, for many who profess religious faith, it is also one lovingly written in the ongoing process of creation, a process that remains outside the human realm of understanding while still remaining thoroughly steeped in human creativity, curiosity, and imagination.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.

Pothani, Maharshi Aditya. “World in a Book.” Behance.net, 12 February 2016, www.behance.net/gallery/33962628/World-In-a-Book. Accessed 1 September 2021.