Borges, “Garden of Forking Paths” – Media and Culture (EL336)

I’m preparing to teach this foundational work of hypertext theory.

On the surface, this short story is a spy thriller, in which a subversive protagonist relies on intellect to match wits with a worthy, authority-wielding foe.

Originally published in Spanish in 1941, this story takes the form of a conventional narrative, but its plot features what we would today call a hypertext novel.

In My Mother Was a Computer, Hayles walks us through some other literary cousins of hypertext, as well as a full-scale literary work that takes the form of a hypertext. As we will see, Borges (BOR-haze) invites us to reconsider basic scholastic questions of what “really” happened in a text that is by design complex and ambiguous, whether any of the conflicting details within a collection of linked texts forms a single “correct” story, and what it means to “read” a work that apparently has no coherent existence apart from the reader’s attempt to give it meaning.

Presented within a veneer of Asian philosophy, challenging Western notions of completion and utility and definability, “The Garden of Forking Paths” raises questions that expand beyond the narrow confines of the spy setting.

The concept Borges presents (of a user-constructed narrative, and in fact a user-constructed reality, which each of us creates for ourselves by stitching together different experiences that result from the innumerable choices we make, and the psychological effect of the presumed proximity of other versions of ourselves who have made slightly different choices) occurs over and over in the early years of “humanities computing” and “literary hypertext studies” (early 1990s — a time when very few literary experts had any real experience with hypertext, and there was very little digital literature that might show the computing theorists how communicators and storytellers might put to use the new ability to connect texts via links).

OCR Full Text (for your convenience — there may be typos)

Scanned Book Pages (a more accurate source)

via Borges, “Garden of Forking Paths” – Media and Culture (EL336).