The Book of Sand - Plot Summary

Plot Summary

The titular "Book of Sand" is the Book of all Books, and is a monster. The story tells how this book came into the possession of a fictional version of Borges himself, and of how he ultimately disposed of it.

On opening the book, Borges finds that the pages are written in an indecipherable script appearing in double columns, ordered in versicle as in a Bible. When he opens to a page with an illustration, the bookseller advises a close look, since the page will never be found, or seen, again. It proves impossible to find the first or last page. This Book of Sand has no beginning or end: its pages are infinite. Each page is numbered, apparently uniquely but in no discernible pattern.

The bookseller indicates that he acquired the book in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible, from an owner who did not know how to read. His conscience is clear with respect to that transaction: he feels sure of not having cheated the native in exchanging the Word of God for this diabolical trinket. He and the fictive Borges strike a bargain, and Borges exchanges his entire pension plus a black-letter Wyclif Bible for the miraculous book.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume is mentioned, and the poet George Herbert is referenced via the epigraph, "Thy rope of sands."

It can be by no means accidental that Borges (the author, not the character) has placed into the hands of an evangelical Presbyterian an "immediate object," the sense of which seemingly undermines plain faith in a Christian eschatology.

One imagines that to the Presbyterian Bible salesman, God's truth is a simple truth. This simple religion was by no means shared by the philosopher Hume, who, according to James Boswell, although the son of Presbyterians, "...owned he had never read the New Testament with attention... had been at no pains to enquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way" (Boswell, p. 409). According to Hume,

... evidence ... for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of their senses.

Borges underscores the distance between the bookseller and Hume by having his fictive persona express his "great personal affection for Scotland, through my love of Stevenson and Hume." The salesman "corrects" him, adding, "And Robbie Burns."

The worldly Borges ultimately proves no more able to live with the terrifying book than was the salesman. He considers destroying the book by fire, but decides against this after reasoning that such a fire would release infinite amounts of smoke, and asphyxiate the entire world.

Ultimately, Borges transports the book to the Argentine National Library (of which the real Borges was, for many years, the head). "Slipping past a member of the staff and trying not to notice at what height or distance from the door ... the Book of Sand on one of the basement's musty shelves", the infinite book deliberately lost in a near-infinity of books.

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