Saturday 4 January 2014

In The Library of Imaginary Books

Deep in the enclaves of Unseen University (in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, in case anyone reading this doesn’t already know) is the University Library, where the presence of so many books has warped space into a mysterious form called L-space (or Library-space) expressed by the equation:

Books are entrances into other worlds: in UU Library this is not a metaphor. And, a consequence of the properties of L-space, the shelves contain every book ever written, unwritten or yet to be written. Terry Pratchett's UU Library is thus - probably - different from Jorge Luis Borges' Biblioteca de Babel, in which the books additionally contain every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet - and are therefore mostly gibberish.

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby

The Babel library would be a bad place to work. I would like, therefore (if I have the Librarian’s permission), to take you on a small tour of UU library, concentrating on a section I often like to visit: the section for Imaginary Books.  These, of course, are books which exist only between the covers of other books and are therefore fictional to the power two: fiction². I’ve delighted in many such titles over the years, so let’s tiptoe past the chained, uneasily-slumbering grimoires of UU Library’s extensive magical sections, and I’ll show you my favourites.

The first is ‘The Orange and the Apple’, which exists between the covers of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘A Fall of Moondust’, the story of a ‘moon-bus’ full of passengers which plunges into the deep soft dust of the Sea of Tranquillity following a moon-quake. During the desperate rescue operation which ensues, the trapped passengers organise an entertainment to keep their minds off claustrophobia and the fear of death. It may not be one of Clarke’s best-known novels, but it contains some good character sketches and is often very funny. The passengers take turns reading aloud the only two novels on board, Jack Schaefer’s classic western ‘Shane’ and a ‘new historical romance’ ‘The Orange and the Apple’, featuring an affair between Sir Isaac Newton and Nell Gwynne. Let me reach it down from the shelf for you: a cheap paperback with a lurid cover and a cracked spine:

The author certainly wasted no time. Within three pages, Sir Isaac Newton was explaining the law of gravitation to Mistress Gwynne, who had already hinted that she would like to do something in return.

…“Forsooth, Sir Isaac, you are indeed a man of great knowledge. Yet, methinks, there is much that a woman might teach you.”
“And what is that, my pretty maid?”
Mistress Nell blushed shyly.
“I fear,” she sighed, “that you have given your life to the things of the mind. You have forgotten, Sir Isaac, that the body, also, has much strange wisdom.”
“Call me ‘Ike’,” said the sage huskily, as his clumsy fingers tugged at the fastenings of her blouse.

Close beside this on the shelves is an array of titles from Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. There’s the Guide itself, of course, clearly an e-book on an e-reader:

…a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON’T PANIC printed on it in large friendly letters.

That was written in the late 1970’s, so you can see the power of L-space right there.  Next to the Guide is an entire bookcase sagging beneath the weight of the many volumes of the Encyclopaedia Galactica. Oh, and here are a couple of paperbacks which look to have been much thumbed by the wizards of Unseen University - so long as they’re sure no other wizard is watching: Eccentrica Gallumbits’ ‘The Big Bang Theory, A Personal View’, and ‘Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Sex But Have Been Forced To Find Out’. Next on the shelf - in a far more pristine condition - is Oolon Colluphid’s galaxy-rattling series of popular theological texts: ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes’, ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’ and ‘Well That About Wraps It Up For God’.

If you’re not interested in science, or philosophy, we can move on to the literary biographies.  Here's one I’ve always wanted to read: ‘Pard-Spirit: A Study of Branwell Brontë’ by one Mr Mybug - nestling within the pages of Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. It’s a handsome looking hardback. I suspect he had to pay for its publication, but he made sure there was a large and arty black and white photograph of himself on the back of the dust jacket.

‘It’s goin’ to be dam good,’ said Mr Mybug. ‘It’s a psychological study, of course, and I’ve got a lot of new matter, including three letters he wrote to an old aunt in Ireland, Mrs Prunty, during the period when he was working on Wuthering Heights.’ He glanced sharply at Flora to see if she would react.

‘It’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff… Secretly, he worked twelve hours a day writing Shirley and Villette - and of course, Wuthering Heights. I’ve proved all this by evidence from the three letters to old Mrs Prunty.  His letters to her are little masterpieces of repressed passion. They’re full of tender little questions… he asks her how is her rheumatism… has her cat, Toby, “recovered from the fever”… … how is Cousin Martha (and what a picture we get of Cousin Martha in those simple words, a raw Irish chit, high-cheekboned, with limp black hair and clear blood in her lips!) …’


Oh look - here, bound in leather and lying on a slanting wooden stand, is the Magician's Book from the 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'! I flick back the two lead clasps which hold it shut, and lift open the cover to reveal beautiful illuminated vellum pages filled with spells -

cures for warts (by washing your hands by moonlight in a silver basin) and toothache and cramp, and a spell for taking a swarm of bees...

... how to find buried treasure, how to remember things forgotten, how to forget things you wanted to forget, how to tell whether anyone was speaking the truth...

Dangerous stuff, all of it.  I can see you're taking a little bit too much interest, so I close the cover and fasten the clasps (the book tingles and buzzes under my fingers as I do so) and we move on.

Ah! Here, sticking quite a long way out from the shelf and leaning slantwise to fit, is a tall folio manuscript bound in a red leather cover. The catalogue label coming unstuck from the spine reads: 'Travel: Imaginary'.  I pull it tenderly out.  Odd though it may seem, this could be the most valuable book in the entire section.  It's written 'in a wandering hand' in spiky black ink with lots of curlicues. The title page has many titles on it, crossed out one after another: so:

My DiaryMy Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again.  And What Happened AfterAdventures of Five Hobbits. The Tale of the Great Ring, compiled by Bilbo Baggins from his own observations and those of his friends. What We Did in the War of the Ring.

Here Bilbo's hand ends, and Frodo has written:

Bilbo and Frodo's own autobiographical account!  I know you'd love to stand here and leaf through it, but today I'm just showing you what's on the shelves, and we haven't time.  You can come back by yourself another day.

How do you fancy Victorian poetry? Courtesy of A S Byatt’s ‘Possession’, allow me to pull out this stout green book, the ‘Collected Poems of Randolph Henry Ash’ including of course ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ and ‘Ask to Embla’ -

No?  Then how about my own preference, this slim volume in limp violet suede, with faded spine and curling corners, whose embossed gold title reads simply ‘The Fairy Melusine’ by Christabel LaMotte, a writer who owes a clear debt to Emily Dickinson. As we pluck it from the shelf, out flutters a loose manuscript sheet with a poem on it:

It came all so still
The little Thing -
And would not stay -
Our Questioning -
A heavy Breath -
One two and three -
And then the lapsed Eternity -
A Lapis Flesh
The Crimson - Gone -
It came as still
As any Stone -

Is there anything you'd like to see that I haven't shown you?  It'll be here.  Just let me know...


  1. Delightful post, Katherine! There ae, of course, other imaginary libraries, such as the one in Beauty by Robin McKinley, the Beast's library, which is full of books not yet written. Not quite te same, but fun, and I bet the Librarian of UU would recognise it. Imaginary books, though ... Lovely!

  2. Thanks, Sue! And yes, I love the library in 'Beauty' (is there one in 'Rose Daughter', too? I could also have mentioned Mr Norrell's library, in Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' - but the problem with that one is remembering anything you've seen in it.

  3. Here's a book you may not have come across in the Imaginary Section: 'How it Is' by Gordon, which is somewhat like a world-weary updated version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, extracts from which can be found in the chapter headers of Neal Asher's Polity series (highly recommended for sci-fi fans...) Oh - and Happy New Year!

  4. Wonderful post, Kath! - Thank you! I enjoyed it so much.

  5. One of the most interesting imaginary libraries I ever encountered was in Richard Brautigan's "The Abortion" ca mid-sixties. It's full of hand written manuscripts by eccentrics and bohemians, all lovingly cataloged and preserved by the equally bohemian librarian. The only title I can remember off the top of my head is "The Effect of Cosmic Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds."

    -- Dana Corby

  6. That sounds fabulous - thankyou, Dana!

  7. Actually, The Effect Of Cosmic Rays..." is a real play, which I saw many years ago - well, it was "Gamma Rays", so I suspect the author here is having fun, but it is based on a real play by Paul Zindel. Despite the bizarre title, it isn't even a comedy. Sorry to disappoint you! :-)

  8. Excellent! This is getting even more meta - imaginary libraries stocked with imaginary books, some of which then turn out to be real ones...

  9. A delightful post! But am I the only author who dreams of novels which s/he has written in dreamland? Most of them, when I wake up, I'm heartily grateful not to be engaged on, but they are a recurring feature of my dream-narratives. They should surely be part of the library of imaginary books. And then there are the wonderful novels we all dream of, when we embark on the project of writing, before we have to settle for what we CAN actually write...

  10. Anything from Claude Lalumière's "The Door to Lost Pages" or Nelson Bond's "The Bookstore".