Imaginary Books

I recently started reading Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (translated by Andrew Hurley) and I’m in love with the way he writes stories about stories, creating this feeling of a whole undiscovered world of impossible works of literature.

In the introduction to Ficciones, I think one of his best regarded collections, he writes:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.

While I don’t know about the “perfectly related orally in five minutes” piece, this is certainly an appealing concept!

Another book with fictional books at it’s center is If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, but there he uses the mechanism to a completely different effect.

There’s also books mentioned in passing in other works, like all these books mentioned in Harry Potter

What are your favorite fictional books? Are there ones that particularly resonated with you? Or any interesting ways that the books were used in the more real books they were in?


Yes! Borges is so good… I have the mega-collection of his fiction (this one) and I’ve maybe only read through like half of it, but I think I’ve read most of the ones from Ficciones. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote are a couple that stood out.

I guess metafiction would be a good (if somewhat more general) term that describes this sort of thing. If on a winter’s night… clearly seems metafictive, about its own constructedness and the act of reading. Some of the Borges stories seem not so much meta, or maybe meta in a different way…more recursive or something.

If metafiction is about the constructedness of the story, its own fictive nature, the artifice of reading, etc., this sort of nested books-within-books device seems (at its best) more about density, compression, and evocation, demonstrating — as in that great quote you shared above — how a small bit of text can call forth various complex hypotheticals, including whole worlds!

Hmm as far as some specific books within books—

Borges is awesome! The book mentioned in his short story The Book of Sand predates the infinite scroll of the web. Would highly recommend that (especially since you have the collection already).

There is also this wonderful collection of imaginary book reviews by the sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem called A Perfect Vacuum that would be right up your alley if you like metafiction and imaginary books!

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Oh awesome I hadn’t heard of the Stanislaw Lem imaginary book reviews, thanks for the rec!

Googling it I found there’s a whole aptly titled Wikipedia article with some more info:

Sounds like a wonderful array of interesting stuff:

While reviewing nonexistent books, a modern form of pseudepigraphy, Lem attempted to create different fictional reviewers and authors for each of the books. In his own words: “I tried to imitate various styles – that of a book review, a lecture, a presentation, a speech (of a Nobel Prize laureate) and so on”. Some of the reviews are lighthearted, concentrating mostly on the story; others, however, read more like serious, academic reviews. Some of the reviews are parodies, or the books being reviewed are parodies or complete impossibilities, others are quite serious and can be seen almost as drafts for novels that Lem never got around to write.

Also that rabbit hole introduced me to the general term for this sort of thing: pseudepigraphy!

This reminds me, too, of an interesting book I read by George Steiner, not pseudepigraphy exactly because the books described are not attributed to other imaginary authors, but are rather his own personal book ideas that he thought about deeply but for one reason or another never came to be.

Along similar lines I have a copy of this one too, though haven’t yet read it! —

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Thanks for the rabbit hole @Brendan! Now I want to check out Steiner’s book. I am particularly intrigued by the introspective approach he takes, going into detail why he did not or could not write said book rather than just imagining it exists.

And pseudepigrapha has my head spinning! Really cool stuff (If only St. Paul really corresponded with Seneca). I am reminded of smaller scale pseudepigrapha, like misattributions or misremembering details.

Borges on the 602nd night of The 1001 Nights is a great example - in some essay I am forgetting he mentions that, on that night, Scheherazade starts telling the story of The 1001 Nights from the beginning! Borges attributes this to the translation he had on hand but nobody can find that passage in said translation. He mentions elsewhere how the song the sirens are singing in The Odyssey could be The Odyssey itself.

These take metafiction to a whole other level, creating a mis en abyme, which in itself is a fascinating idea:

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Love it — fictional self-reference / recursion, indeed a similarly fascinating device!

Googling to see what else besides Borges comes up as examples…sounds like John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse has a number of interesting stories, one of which, “Frame-Tale”, can be cut on a dotted line so as to create am infinite looping Möbius strip.

In another, “Menalaiad”, “Barth leads the reader in and out of seven metaleptic layers.” [also from wikipedia: metalepsis = “a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context.”]

And another, Live-Story, is a “metafictional commentary on its own telling.” Have to give this one a read sometime!

The Princess Bride is a fun half-example of this–the premise is that author William Goldman had a favorite obscure fantasy/adventure book as a child that his dad read to him. As an adult author he found it again but realized his dad was abridging it for him to make it better, and he in turn offers the abridged version to the readers (but with his own modern day commentary interspersed.) Of course, in reality it’s a fiction on a fiction–there is no book he’s abridging, he wrote both the adventure story and the modern day commentary.

It’s a lot of fun as a device, and I was taken in as a kid until I realized the truth later. It also lets him do things like say “I’m going to skip the next part, it’s really boring, but the important thing to know is they get to such-and-such place and are now in such-and-such mood.” Great writing hack.

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