The Figure of a Book

Defining the figure of a book following Borges’s figure of man in “Mirror of Enigmas”.
The proportions of the human figure (The Vitruvian Man) by Leonardo da Vinci (1492)


Some measurements of an object may be more important than others. If a medieval scholar asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pinyou’re unlikely to enquire about the length of the pin. (But enquiring about the size of the dance area, namely the head, would be reasonable.)

Some measurements distort under projection. A man at noon dwarfs his own shadow, but a man in a torchlit cave casts a giant on the wall. This happens because the shadow of an object depends on the object, the source of light, the surface catching the shadow, and their relative positions. Therefore, shadows hint at features of their owner without necessarily describing their owner’s essence.

Those in Plato’s cave cannot imagine the sun.

Similarly: silhouettes are contours from one viewpoint (a cylindrical candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, and a circle when seen from above); photographs show us the lens-facing side (a rectangle of wax and a flaming disc).

Projections are simplifications.

Shadows, silhouettes, photographs, x-rays, scans are projections of physical objects that a human mind grasps more easily than the objects themselves. In intellectual matters, we outline issues and give snapshots of complex situations. Further, a state of mind is the mind viewed within a slice of time—it’s a momentary projection of a more complex figure.

A current state of the mind is by definition “reasonable” or “comprehensible” to that mind, but taken over time, taken together, these projections of mind trace an incomprehensible figure consisting of various states (incomprehensible, in as much as we cannot remember all of it or recreate all of it or make sense of all of it).

But what if all projections over all time could be understood in their entirety? And not just those of mind, but more generally, those of man?

In a footnote to the The Mirror of Enigmas, Borges offers an anecdotal definition of what that would entail.

What is a Divine Mind? the reader will perhaps inquire. There is not theologian who does not define it; I prefer an example. The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle. This figure (perhaps) has its given function in the economy of the universe.

(Translated by James E. Irby)

An elegant idea, this figure of a man. Why not also define the figure of a book?

The words in a book are a fixed linguistic projection of thought (the author’s), but they also participate in a magical process: when read, they invert the projection, spawning infinitely creative thought-worlds (the readers’).

Reading a book is like starting with only a shadow catching your own hand and observing the shape-changes of that shadow as you move your hand. From those observations, over time and text, you then intuit the object casting the shadow, the source of light, and their relative positions.

Everyone has a hand. Everyone will intuit some different thought-world.

Taken over all possible hands (readings), these new thought-worlds spawned by a book trace an inconceivable figure. The figure of a book.

In partial keeping with the analogy, I venture that this figure could only be grasped by a Divine Librarian, who, were they to exist, would reside in Borges’s Library of Babel.

Figure of man and figure of book may be of closer relation than I dared to suggest. Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, finds it appropriate to ask: Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? 1

To the Divine Mind and the Divine Librarian: discuss.
Book Transforming Itself into a Nude Woman by Salvador Dali (1940)


P.S. For optical illusions and fun with projections see Shigeo Fukuda (shadow sculptures) and Guido Moretti (viewpoint sculptures that transform upon rotation).
Another way of seeing the figure/shell of a book: Book, Pipe and Glasses by Juan Gris


  1. Translated by Richard Miller. 

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

4 thoughts on “The Figure of a Book”

  1. Amazing post this is, especially the list of ways we see real objects as projection, shadow, and so on. The real we perceive even is a perspective of all things real, isn’t it?

    Liked by 2 people

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