The Book of Sand: Agency in the Reader-Book Relationship

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges is a hypertext that consists of eight pages in random order. The text includes clues that the reader can use to rearrange the pages into a cohesive chronological narrative. If the reader rearranges the pages in the correct order, then her name is entered into the game’s Hall of Fame (this particular page is no longer online as of March 31st, 2015).

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The interface resembles an old book on a simple gray background. Each page includes just a few paragraphs with at least one picture. The pictures aren’t static; they dissolve and change into new images every few seconds.

In the text, a first-person narrative tells the story of a man who invites a door-to-door Bible salesman into his home. The salesman offers the man The Book of Sand, an infinite tome whose pages change every time the reader closes it. The man barters with the salesman to get the book. After the salesman leaves, the man spends months pouring over the book. He realizes that it’s starting to control his life, so he sneaks into a library and leaves it on a shelf.

Although The Book of Sand has the appearance of a book, the work acts a metaphor for new technologies of communication. By making this work resemble an old print book, Borges sets up a parallel in the reader’s mind between the historical Old Book (the root-book) and the New Book (the rhizome).

Yet Borges’s work differs from many works of interactive literature in that it presents a single correct way to solve the game that comprises its system. It doesn’t try to trick the reader; it’s not terribly hard to figure out the correct order. Instead, it draws attention to the process of reading.

Borge’s work communicates that the book has agency. Indeed, Borges is known to embrace “the character of unreality in all literature.”1 He flips the traditional notion that the reader yields power over the book; The Book of Sand is infinite, unlike the reader, manifesting the teleological end of the Book.

However, Borge limits the book’s agency. In the end, the first-person narrator closes The Book of Sand and gives it away. Likewise, the reader can stop reading at any time and is free to read the book in the “incorrect” order.

Katherine Hayles describes the agency in the reader-book relationship. In Electronic Literature, she explains that the book is a computer program that “functions as a receptacle for the cognitions of the writer that are stored until activated by a reader, at which point a complex transmission process takes place between writer and reader, mediated by the specificities of the book as a material medium” (57). Yet Borges complicates this idea; his hypertext is a rhizomatic novel that has more power over the reader than the traditional root-book, gaining its own agency.

Do you agree with Borges that the New Book (the Rhizome) has agency over the reader? If so, to what extent?

  1. Jozef, Bella. “Borges: linguagem e metalinguagem”. In: O espaço reconquistado. Petropolis, RJ: Vozes, 1974, p.43.
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2 Responses to The Book of Sand: Agency in the Reader-Book Relationship

  1. mattdice says:

    I like the parallels that you and the author draw. The Book of Sand is an infinite book, just like the Internet in a way. Because there is limitless information to glean from the text, the reader just keeps reading and doesn’t put it down. I can attest to that idea, since I find myself overturning new parts of the internet every day, and never getting any closer to experiencing it in its entirety. In this way, the Rhizome can definitely consume the lives of people who cannot control themselves to put it down or look away. Just like Infinite Jest, which circles back on itself, and the Entertainment inside of it, the Rhizome could be an all encompassing work of media or literature that has no end and thus can keep its audience entertained indefinitely.


  2. rdlebby says:

    I’m not sure that I agree with the Rhizome having agency over the reader. It’s an interesting argument, and one I could probably buy into depending on my mood, but I’m thinking that to have actual agency over something it’s mandatory that you be able to control it in some way. The reader is always choosing to pick up the book, to seek something from it, or even just to experience it. In my linguistics classes, it’s been drilled into my head that the agent is the one that causes the action (think subject). Even with an unending supply of material, it’s still up to the reader to pick up the book (or browse the Internet or whatever) and furthermore choose to actual invest enough in reading it that the book has an effect.


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