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The Borges boom: he may be dead, but his legacy remains strong

In Spanish, the long-dead Jorge Luis Borges is a minor Internet star. The Argentine short story writer, who died in 1986, left behind an unlikely legacy on YouTube and other sites: audio recordings and videos of his lectures, many recorded in Buenos Aires during a famous series of talks in 1977.

If you understand Spanish, you can listen to Borges expound on topics such as Dante and the Divine Comedy, Buddhism, and his own blindness. Each talk offers a taste of Borges’ unique voice, at once erudite and filled with a sense of wonder.

“People imagine the blind imprisoned in a world of black,” he says in his lecture on blindness. This, Borges says, is a common misconception. He quotes a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “Looking on the darkness which the blind do see.” The Bard is wrong, Borges says, “if we understand darkness as blackness.” He says, “For me, a person who was used to sleeping in darkness, one of the things that bothered me most was sleeping in that world of fog, of greenish and bluish fog … which is the world of the blind.”

Borges has experienced a bit of a boom in recent years, thanks to the growing popularity in translation of a new generation of Latin American writers who grew up as avid admirers of his work, including Roberto Bolaño and Cesar Aira. This summer, New Directions is publishing two books in which Borges speaks, including “Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature,” which is based on 25 lectures Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. They were preserved by by his students on cassette tapes, back in the day, and have now been translated into English for the first time.

The New York Review of Books has a wonderful excerpt this week from "Professor Borges," a talk entitled “A lecture on Johnson and Boswell.” The lecture tells the story of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (author of one the first great English dictionaries) and James Boswell, his biographer. The piece reads more like a short story than a lecture, as Borges describes the friendship between the older Johnson and the younger Boswell, and the way Boswell made himself a kind of bumbling sidekick character in his book about Johnson.

“Boswell gives himself the role of the ridiculous one, and he maintains it throughout the entire book,” Borges says. “Yet, we feel a sincere friendship between the two... It is natural, as I have said, that this would be so; for Johnson was a famous man and alone, and of course he liked to feel by his side the friendship of a much younger man, who so obviously admired him.”

The second book published by New Directions is “Borges at Eighty: Conversations,” a collection of interviews from his 1980 trip to the United States.

“The man we see in these eleven interviews is a person made of books, a librarian who often remarked that his idea of paradise was an endless library — a sort of eternal busman’s holiday,” Mark O’Connell writes in the New Yorker. “He speaks of himself as a reader first and a writer only secondarily.”

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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