.                               Return to home page

Books within Worlds within Books...

"Wait ... people in a book are reading books? Is that even safe? What if they started reading themselves?"
     - comment on Jo Walton's Among Others

WheBooks within Booksn I was a young and tender librarian, I was asked for a book that didn't exist.  A patron called looking for a copy of The Book of Counted Sorrows by Stephen Crane, an old, hard-to-find (and purportedly cursed, so I learned) collection of poetry that horror author Dean Koontz referred to frequently for the epigraphs of his novels.  The patron had liked the snippets he'd seen fronting Koontz's works, and wanted to read more.  It took me three days (the Internet not being what it is now) to track down the reason it was so "hard to find:" it wasn't real. 

In 1981, when he was writing his novel The Mask, Koontz went looking for a bit of poetry to use as an epigraph, the brief quotation or poem authors sometimes use to preface their work.  Not finding anything appropriate, Koontz composed a few lines himself and attributed them to a made-up book and author-- The Book of Counted Sorrows, by Stephen Crane.  The next time he needed a scrap of poetry, he did it again.  And again.  He even invented some backstory for it (because hey, he's a fiction author, and that's what they do).  Koontz's agent had suggested pulling it together into a book once he'd compiled enough material (and since then, he has-- it was released in 2001 as an ebook and a limited edition hardcover), but at the time, the title didn't exist outside of those few quotations and the author's imagination.

It took a great deal of persuading to convince my patron that the book he wanted to read didn't exist (at least, not yet).  After all, a bestselling writer quoted from it all the time, it had an author, a history-- how could it not be real?  (Never mind that the rest of the book he'd found it in was entirely the product of the author's imagination....)  Nor was I the only librarian put on the spot-- the idea that an author might invent a book mystified a lot of Koontz's fans.  Koontz himself says he used to receive three to four thousand inquiries a year about Counted Sorrows.   

Really, though, why is so hard to believe?  We are readers, and books are an important part of our world.  Is it so strange that the fictional worlds we read about should have books in them, too?   Koontz is hardly the first author to add a book to his list of fictional creations.  The unspeakable evil of H. P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon so captured the imagination that horror writers August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith referred to it in their own books.  It also inspired Sam Raimi to created an entire cult movie franchise around its legend.  (Hey, there was even a plush pre-school edition made!)  Some authors (and probably a few college students) have created fictional reference books to lend an aspect of realism to their work.  Isaac Asimov salted his text with "historical" passages from the Encyclopedia Galactica to validate the events and characters of his far-future Foundation series.  Frank Herbert did something similar for the world of Arrakis by using passages from Muad'Dib's official biographies in the chapter headings of Dune.

Then there are the books that bring fiction and reality another step closer, by claiming ficticious authors as their origin.  Tolkien's The Hobbit is, of course, only a translation of Bilbo Baggins' own There and Back Again travelogue and memoir (with fewer jam stains on the margins).  And you can't blame William Goldman if you didn't like the ending of The Princess Bride-- his book is just the abridged, "good parts" version of (fictional) author S. Morgenstern's classic satire (who didn't write The Silent Gondoliers, either).  The Phoenix Guards adds yet another layer of authorial complexity: the work is supposedly a history based primarily on the letters of a certain Tiassa, compiled and edited by stuffy Imperial chronicler Sir Paarfi of Roundwood (who asserts his presence in extensive footnotes), and translated from the Dragaeran (and given a catchier title) by Steven Brust.

If we really want to blur the lines between fiction and reality, what better than a book that offers documentary "proof" (in the form of ficticious journals and news reports) that the events therein are real?  Bram Stoker's Dracula, related through diary entries, letters, ship's logs, and newspaper excerpts, offered Victorian readers a frighteningly believable paper trail of the undead Count's insidious advance upon England's unsuspecting shores.  (In the preface, Stoker presents himself as a friend who published these papers on the Harkers' behalf.)  Over a century later, Elizabeth Kostova used a similar plot device-- with a nod to Stoker-- for The Historian, though the author played a far more involved role in the events related.  Max Brooks likewise brought a realistic immediacy to World War Z by writing himself in as a largely invisible character: the interviewer.  Brooks claimed in his introduction that it was a "personal history book" compiled from the interview notes he'd made for a governmental report, recording personal accounts of survivors of the Zombie War.

Of course, you don't need to read a single word of a fictional text for it to influence the plot.  Think of all the readers you've come across in fiction, and how the books they read affect the course of their own stories.  But for Catherine Morland's unfortunate addiction to gothic novels, Northanger Abbey would have been just another pleasant country estate.  Without Dickens and Hemingway and Kipling, Roald Dahl's Matilda might have grown up to be just like her parents.  And for fireman Guy Montag of Fahrenheit 451, reading becomes both the beginning and the end of all of his troubles. 

And what about magic books?  (Books of spells, or books that are magical in themselves-- your choice.)  Yes, they're on my list, too, of course.  Hopefully, I've shown you by now that a fictional book doesn't have to be magical to pique our interest.  From the outside, a book about a book might seem like a pretty boring thing to read about, but the titles below will make you think again.  If every book can contain a world of stories, a book within a book can unleash worlds within worlds within worlds....

Step up and add a few titles to your imaginary bookshelf:

S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Fiction Abrams)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (SF Adams)
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (Reading List Asimov)
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Fiction Atwood)
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (short story "The Library of Babel") (Fiction Borges)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (SF Bradbury)
World War Z by Max Brooks (Horror Brooks)
The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust (SF Brust)
Possession by A. S. Byatt (Fiction Byatt)
If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (Fiction Calvino)
The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity by Mike Carey (GN Carey)
The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories by Robert W. Chambers (Exp Horror Chambers)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Fantasy Clarke)
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (Reading List Connolly)
Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (Reading List Crichton)
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (Fantasy Dean)
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (SF Dick)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (J Ende)
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Reading List Fforde)
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (J Funke)
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (Fantasy Gaiman)
The Princess Bride by William Goldman (Fantasy Goldman)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (Horror Grahame-Smith)
Feed by Mira Grant (Horror Grant)
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Fantasy Harkness)
Dune by Frank Herbert (SF Herbert)
Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines (Fantasy Hines)
The Dark Half by Stephen King (LP King)
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Horror Kostova)
The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft (Horror Lovecraft)
Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip (Fantasy McKillip)
Finder: Talisman by Carla Speed McNeil (GN McNeil)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (Reading List Miller)
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Fiction Morton)
Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Exp Fantasy Novik)
The First Discworld Novels by Terry Pratchett (novel The Light Fantastic) (SF Pratchett)
Night Owls by Lauren M. Roy (Pbk-Fantasy Roy)
The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Fiction Ruiz Zafon)
Drood by Dan Simmons (Fiction Simmons)
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Fiction Sloan)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (Horror Stoker)
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Pbk-Fantasy Tolkien)
Among Others by Jo Walton (Fantasy Walton)
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (SF Willis)
This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It By David Wong (Horror Wong)
How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (SF Yu)

No votes yet