I’ve been studying the history of taxonomy lately and reading Aristotle, Pliny, Linnaeus, and others who have labored mightily to make order in the universe.

But no study of the systems of classification would be complete without mentioning the Jorge Luis Borges story posing as an essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” In it Borges mentions a taxonomy of animals that he claims can be found in an old Chinese encyclopedia called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If you know Borges you know this encyclopedia is (probably) whimsical, was discovered by a  (perhaps) imaginary scholar, and that the list is as much a commentary on our urge to classify the things of the world as it is a playful exercise in the combinatory agility of words:

According to Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, animals are divided into:

a) those belonging to the emporer
b) those that are embalmed
c) tame or trained ones
d) suckling pigs
e) mermaids and sirens
f) those that are fabulous
g) stray dogs
h) those included in the present classification
i)  frenzied ones
j) innumerable ones
k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
l) other ones
m) those that have recently broken a water pitcher
n) those that from a long way off look like flies


The Best Thing I Read Today

This morning I grabbed a favorite book, Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, opened it at random (my favorite way to read Barthelme), and read the story “Rebecca.” It is about a woman who petitions the court to change her last name from “Lizard,” then visits a dermatologist to see if he can do anything about the slight greenish color of her skin. When both efforts fail she goes home and takes out her anger and frustration on her female lover. Her lover punishes her in turn, saying that she does not find Rebecca’s green skin as beautiful as she once did. They argue, they push each other away, they begin to regret the argument, and they finally make up. This strange and strangely beautiful story ends this way:

“The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.”


  1. Patricia Clark

    Hi Jerry, Sounds like an interesting Barthelme story. I’ve got to read it. He was teaching at the Univ of Houston when I was in grad school there but I never took a class with him. He was really involved in the English Department and worked hard on curriculum. Really believed students needs to be well educated. Not surprising, I guess.


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