Not to Be Read without Shuddering

Adam Smyth

  • The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed by Georges Minois, translated by Lys Ann Weiss
    Chicago, 249 pp, £21.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 53029 1

One of the ways in which literary texts are capacious is their ability to contain, within themselves, imaginary books: books that the more literal-minded real world isn’t yet able to realise. Borges’s short fiction is teeming with them. In ‘The Library of Babel’, Borges imagines a library ‘composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries’. The library is ‘total’: it contains books composed of ‘all possible combinations’ of letters: ‘All that is able to be expressed, in every language. All.’ He gives us a sample:

The detailed history of the future … the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogues, a proof of the falsity of the true catalogue, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books.

There is a long tradition of writing about books that do not exist, often with bibliographical exactness: it continues in the fictions of Italo Calvino, Douglas Adams, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Z. Danielewski, among many others. The Polish science fiction writer and author of Solaris, Stanisław Lem, wrote long introductions to four imaginary books in Imaginary Magnitude (1973) and a whole volume of reviews of non-existent books, A Perfect Vacuum (1971). The journal Underneath the Bunker publishes reviews of unwritten books, including ‘the latest novels by the Norwegian firebrand Edmund Ek’. ‘What tiresome and laborious folly it is to write empty tomes,’ Borges said, ‘to expound in five hundred pages on an idea that one could easily propound orally in a few minutes. Better is pretending that the books exist already and offering a summary or commentary.’ Something like this occurs in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1940), which presents a triple layer of imaginary fictions: the book concerns an anonymous amateur scholar who reveres a sage called de Selby whose (imaginary) works – including Golden Hours and Country Album – are listed with footnotes and page numbers, alongside (invented) critical works on de Selby (including Conspectus of the de Selby Dialectic), and also a meta-commentary on these critics (Bibliographie de de Selby).

What do imaginary books do? Often they make us laugh: imaginary books are usually funny books, bibliographical punchlines that snort in the face of literary history. Many accounts of imaginary books originate in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532), where, between the giants and the scatology, Rabelais describes the Library of St Victor in Paris – perhaps Europe’s earliest imaginary library. Among the volumes Pantagruel finds are The Codpiece of the Law; The Testes of Theology; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; Three Books on How to Chew Bacon; Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers; and The Spur of Cheese. Imaginary books get funnier when they collide with enumerative bibliography – bodiless texts meticulously pinned to a board – and Rabelais’s catalogue lists 140 titles, some of which, he tells us, ‘are even now in the presses of this noble city of Tübingen’.

The iterative wit of the phantom bibliography is at work in the best-known early English example: John Donne’s Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or The Courtier’s Library of Rare Books Not for Sale. Unpublished until 1650, Donne wrote the text between about 1603 and 1611, and it proved popular in manuscript with his coterie readers. It is a parody of guides to courtly behaviour – a turning on its head of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) – and lists 34 titles including Edward Hoby’s Afternoon Belchings; Martin Luther’s On Shortening the Lord’s Prayer; and The Art of copying out within the compass of a Penny all the truthful statements made to that end by John Foxe. ‘With these books at your elbow,’ Donne suggests, ‘you may in almost every branch of knowledge suddenly emerge as an authority.’

How do we talk about imaginary books? What kind of existence do they have? In Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England (1998), Anne Lake Prescott calls his fictive titles ‘nonbooks’ or ‘promises of books’: ‘oscillating between being and nonbeing’, she writes, they are ‘the librarian’s equivalent of negative wonder’. Imaginary books come close to being real, but then swerve away at the last moment. The effect, as with Borges’s infinite library, can be vertiginous: a sudden sense of paths not taken, or not yet taken; a series of rooms lit up.

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