A brief survey of fictional books.
I’m soon to move across the country, and surveying my bookcases—the three in the living room and the three in the bedroom, plus the unshelved piles that crop up from any flat surface—fills me with dread. The only cure, I’ve found, is to let my thoughts wander to another, even larger literary collection, a kind of underworld reflection of the one all around me. The books in this second collection are not all fiction, but they are all fictional. I’m imagining a place the late Umberto Eco might appreciate: the Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books.
On its shelves are the books that exist only in books. Every person’s Borges Library is different—none more than his—and a certain too-clever, too-dorky postmodern sensibility is required to open a branch at all. But the best start to a general catalog is found on Wikipedia, a page called “List of Fictional Books.” (Second only to the “List of Common Misconceptions.”) One comfort of Wikipedia is the assurance of kindred spirits; here are strangers, named Jessicapierce and Niceguyedc and Vermiculite, who care about alphabetizing imaginary books. Their catalog is incomplete, as any would have to be, but it is also impressively wide-ranging, so much so that I suspect not only the fictional books of being imaginary—like Consider the Porpoise—but some of the books that contain them as well. (Does Louise Erdrich really have a book called Grandmother’s Pigeon? Color me skeptical.)
The most notable imaginary books are the ones we are ostensibly allowed to read. Much of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is the text of Laura Chase’s The Blind Assassin, whose characters are themselves inventing yet another story; much of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the text of John Shade’s Pale Fire. Personally, when I’m plunged into the pretend text of these double fictions, I struggle to care. I’m too aware that the words are Nabokov’s and not Shade’s. Every day I read novels in which nothing is real, but somehow the knowledge that what I’m reading isn’t real even in this fictional world spoils the fun. (What’s interesting isn’t the play-within-a-play; it’s Hamlet in his seat, giving the play-by-play.) Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter Night a Traveler so devours its own tail that you aren’t reading an imaginary book so much as reading about yourself reading an imaginary book—it’s impossible to comment on the real book without starting to play the game. Other imaginary books come alive in the main action, almost as prophecy: Fuka-Eri’s Air Chrysalis in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84; the parchments by Melquíades at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Others share with their vessel only a title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A larger category of imaginary books comes from a similar metafictional game, one order removed. A real author conceives a fictional author, and authors need books: a bibliography comes into existence. In The Cannibal Galaxy, Cynthia Ozick invents the genius academic Hester Lilt. Of the high school principal who becomes obsessed with Lilt’s books, Ozick writes, “What awed him most were the strange links she wove between vivid hard circumstance and things that were only imagined.” This category is Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman and his scandalous Carnovsky. It’s Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine and his screenplay Von Trenck, and Citrine’s friend Humboldt, author of Harlequin Ballads. It’s nearly everyone in Nabokov, each with five or six titles to their name: John Shade (try his second, Night Rote), Sebastian Knight (the only real number is Lost Property, the rest are repetition), Humbert Humbert (would not recommend), Clare Quilty (same), and the Nabokovian anagramatrix Vivian Darkbloom, author of the Quilty biography My Cue. Also in this category is Max Beerbohm, an invented author name if ever there were, whose Enoch Soames sells his soul for a trip to the British Museum a century later, expecting posterity to have raised his writing from obscurity; instead he finds himself forgotten. Not so in the Borges Memorial Library, where the card for Soames lists Negations and Fungoids both!
Which brings us to Borges himself, the patron saint of imagined books. Borges played every metafictional game imaginable, but what makes his bibliographic inventions so much fun is his interest in the books themselves. For Borges, whose translators collected his stories in a book called Labyrinths, what are a fictional footnote on A General History of Labyrinths and a fictional essay on “The God of the Labyrinth” except a wish list? Nowhere is author or context more irrelevant than in Borges’s Library of Babel, where an inconceivable number of 410-page volumes “contain all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)—that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language.” When you start reading books that cross volumes, with no limit on length or repetition, the Library of Babel becomes infinite, and Borges deserves at least a partial patent on all other imaginary books and their limitless variations. In the Library of Babel, there’s no such thing as an imaginary book.
Umberto Eco shared this postmodern love of the fictional books. Eco’s imagined authors are often lost, not to the mechanism of infinite combination but to the mechanism of history, in which authors die and their books remain. In his introduction to The Name of the Rose, Eco bills the book that follows as the fourteenth-century manuscripts of Adso of Melk, which were first published in 1842 by “a certain Abbé Vallet,” later selectively quoted in the 1934 work On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess by Milo Temesvar, and finally found the author’s hands in 1968. About Vallet and Temesvar and their fictional works, little more is known. The progression, the mystery of lineage, the historical fog Eco cannot penetrate, reduces the surviving manuscript to text alone.
If these imagined authors of Eco’s are long dead, is it any surprise that Philip Roth’s are so very much alive? Roth is not finding us a rare, extant bright-yellow first edition of Carnovsky; he’s finding us Nathan Zuckerman. Even when Zuckerman does die, in The Counterlife, it is only a product of his own living, breathing, red-blooded imagination.
Each imaginary book is a demonstration of fiction’s magic, as an author deposits into a fictional world yet another fictional world, like one universe bubbling out of another. Is it for this, a celebration of the fictional multiverse, that so many authors exalt in imagined books?
Perhaps Eco, perhaps Borges, but I suspect for many the explanation is less metaphysical. Authors write books, and first they have ideas. For some—is there a better example than Nabokov?—this initial creative impulse is hyperactive; they think of more books than they could ever write; they think of books impossible to write, impossible for them, impossible for anyone. And this moment of inspiration may be the fun part, the ecstatic part, or at least the easy part. Afterward comes the agony, the research, the writing, the self-judgment; there are ideas not worth it that they don’t want to discard. All an imaginary book needs is a title (maybe), an author (maybe), and a plot summary (maybe). It is the idea alone and only the best of it—germination without obligation.
And some—Nabokov again—take obvious joy in titles. (With an imaginary book, the title always sticks.) Like his pitch-perfect and absurd British names, this is where P. G. Wodehouse shines. He gave us the romance novels of Bingo Little’s wife, Rosie M. Banks, including Only a Factory Girl and The Courtship of Lord Strathmorlick, and that greatest of reference books: More American Birds, by Alexander Worple. Kurt Vonnegut coined one of the best titles of all time with Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Half-Shell—a title too clever to support an actual book, as we discovered when Philip José Farmer tried to write it, or would have discovered had we read it.
If Venus on the Half-Shell is a fictional book that became real, or at least inspired a real book of the same name, the obverse is another special case: real books that have disappeared, and the life-giving power of fiction revives them … just out of reach. In The Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick describes the discovery of Bruno Schulz’s lost, unfinished masterwork The Messiah. (Spoiler alert: sort of.) In The Name of the Rose, Eco’s fourteenth-century monks find the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics—half of which is then eaten by a deranged zealot, and the rest burned. Fiction brings lost books close enough for us to feel their loss; it’s purposeful art or emotional puppetry, or both.
My favorite imaginary books are not the ones that serve a grand purpose but the incidental ones, the Rosie M. Banks romances piled in the background like the books in the living room and the bedroom and everywhere else, the titles you glance over and ask, When will I get to that one? And incredibly, though there are already more great books than I could ever read, these imaginary books give me reader’s envy. But if they don’t exist, I don’t need to haul them to Oregon. A silver lining.
As for writer’s envy, there is a section of the BMNL Library of Imaginary Books that lies beyond this essay. Tucked behind the paperback translations of Tudev Nemkhu and the twenty surviving Bill Gray retrospective box sets, stacked on top of various editions of It’s Your Funeral (for which E. I. Lonoff declined the National Book Award), not far from a long out-of-print volume of Frank Bascombe short stories, is that one pile of the books—sharply styled, perfectly plotted, ambitious in scope, true to life—that each of us could have, should have, will someday write.
Seth Gannon, a partner at the presentation-coaching firm Speech Labs and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has recently completed the manuscript for a novel.