Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, comprising stories published between 1832 and 1851, is recommended for the well-known items, which remain frightening, ambiguous, many-sided, and in some essential way deranged ("Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Maypole of Merry Mount," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "Ethan Brand"), but mostly, this particular day, for the odd, unassuming, enigmatic story-sketch called "Wakefield," which has never been assigned in any high school on earth but is a longtime fetish of over-thinkers like myself.
Sitting in the library yesterday, researching my book, to which "Wakefield" is somewhat important, I learned that a writer named Daniel Stern in 1991 published a story called "'Wakefield' by Nathaniel Hawthorne." In it, a married man has just read, not the story, but about the story, in a book left on the seat next to him in a snowed-in airport by an unmet stranger. The book is by Jorge Luis Borges, and it contains a 1949 lecture on Hawthorne with an extended discussion of "Wakefield" and Borges's obsession with it. The married man talks excitedly about that obsession, and the short story behind it (which he has not read). His wife gets caught up in the whole thing, they discuss the story's events and characters as if these were somehow relevant to their own lives, and the Hawthorne original—still unread, only perceived through the Borgesian filter—winds up influencing reality in a way not exactly shocking yet not quite foreseen.
Since I was in the library, and we have a very good library, after reading the Stern story I was able to find, and read, the Borges lecture. And further find, through one of our scholarly databases, a 1974 paper from the Latin American Literary Review comparing "Wakefield" to a short prose piece which Borges published in 1969, twenty years after he had first publicly proclaimed his "Wakefield" obsession. And then find, and read, the Borges piece which that was based on.
"Now mind you this is Chinese boxes," the husband in Stern's story says to his wife, just before eagerly unpacking Hawthorne from Borges, or vice versa, or both, and (potentially) changing both of their lives forever. Starting out from a little story that I'd never read before a couple of years ago, which has occupied my mind, and which I was proud of having been the first person to ever have become obsessed with, I discover that many have been obsessed with it, that stories and talks and daydreams have been spun about and around it.
Another term for "Chinese boxes" is "rabbit hole," and this is the one I was in for a few hours yesterday. Needless to say, a lot of planned research didn't get done.