One of the subtle pleasures of reading fiction involves uncovering the intricate world contained within the covers of the book in your hands -- the streets of a town that may or may not exist in real life, the minor characters, and, of course, the literary references. The vast literary tradition being a symbiotic system, books often reference each other or classics from long ago, either obliquely or directly, and picking up on what books were on the author's mind can be revealing and intriguing.
While many books reference only real books -- much like the TV show "Gilmore Girls," the bookish soap that name-dropped 339 books on its way to inspiring a reading challenge -- some authors choose to get a bit more creative. The list of invented books mentioned in fiction is extensive, and it's always somewhat fascinating to see a hint of an alternative universe where a creative work exists that we don't have access to in our world. Most tantalizingly, some authors offer scraps of text or information about these fictional texts, or even weave them closely into the plot of their own story. In these cases, it's almost unbearable to realize that we can never read these books.
Here are 8 fictional books within books we really wish existed in real life:
Fillory and Further series by Christopher Plover, from The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ classic series The Chronicles of Narnia, the Fillory and Further books are the fictional books underpinning Lev Grossman’s very real Magicians Trilogy. In Grossman’s first novel, The Magicians
, Fillory turns out to be no literary fantasy but a real magical land; the Fillory books were not fiction, but based on true events. The twist is that Fillory, which seemed such a comforting refuge to the hero, Quentin Coldwater, who adored the books as a young boy, is actually a dark and perilous place, full of otherworldly horrors and unimaginable treachery. The series turns our cheery childhood fantasies upside-down, bringing them sharply into grim adult reality. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be lovely if the more pleasant, sun-dappled view of Fillory, as presented by fictional author Christopher Plover, actually existed? That’s a series we’d love to curl up with on a rainy day. (We can only reread The Chronicles of Narnia so many times.) You can read the first chapter of one book, The World in the Walls
, online, but the taste isn't enough to satisfy.
Untitled novel by Ts'ui Pên, from "The Garden of Forking Paths" by Jorge Luis Borges
Can a book also be a labyrinth? In this mind-bending short story by Jorge Luis Borges, we’re invited to imagine a book that completely reinvents the form and function of the medium. The story follows a Chinese spy during WWI who goes to visit a prominent scholar who has been studying the manuscripts left behind by his ancestor, Ts'ui Pên. The manuscripts were meant to be a great novel; Ts'ui Pên also intended to construct a complex labyrinth. When he died, no one could understand his meandering drafts, and the labyrinth couldn’t be located. The scholar, however, has come to understand that the novel WAS the labyrinth -- a winding, misleading maze of forking paths and simultaneous outcomes. This sounds baffling, sure, but also deeply fascinating. Can a novel be a labyrinth? Can a book allow for multiple outcomes at each point? What would that even look like? If only we knew.
An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, from The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
This book, and its author, Peter Van Houten, feature prominently in The Fault in Our Stars
-- though admittedly they don’t look as good on movie posters as Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. So it’s surprising to some fans that Van Houten and his book do not exist. Surprising and frustrating, as John Green makes the book seem so captivating and world-changing that it seems cruel that we’re denied the possibility of ever reading it. There are tantalizing tidbits -- the epigraph was composed and credited to the book, for example, and we know the book ends abruptly, mid-sentence. For any more, we have to turn to Green’s description of the two novels
that influenced his depiction of An Imperial Affliction
: "If you wish to read An Imperial Affliction
, I’d encourage you to read Infinite Jest
and The Blood of the Lamb
and then try to blend the feeling of those two books.”
Amazing Amy series by Rand and Marybeth Elliott, from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
There’s something intriguing about the Amazing Amy books. They don’t seem quite like other books we tend to read as kids, which often spotlight amusing gaffes (Amelia Bedelia
) or mischief (Where the Wild Things Are
) or just a sense of being a kid in an unfriendly world (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
). Instead, this children’s series, which were written by the parents of Gone Girl
leading lady Amy Dunne, were meant to teach perfection by example -- the example, of course, being Amazing Amy. There were even handy quizzes throughout to reinforce the lessons, making sure kids were learning the right lessons about how to be amazing. The over-the-top didacticism of the books makes them seem pretty amusing, at least enough for one read. Though an iBook sampler of The Complete Amazing Amy
now exists for the perusal of Gone Girl
fans, using artwork commissioned for the film
, only a few out-of-context pages from each story appear to whet our appetites.
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, from If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino’s postmodernist classic makes the reader the protagonist of the story -- so, in a way, the book itself is a book within the book. It gets weirder; the book is abruptly cut off due to a printing error, and you, the reader, end up searching for another book, which you begin reading. The process repeats throughout the novel, as each new book ends prematurely due to yet more printer errors. Alluringly, you actually begin each text, only to be cut off. Though Calvino’s actual book forms a clever and engrossing puzzle, and is a great book in its own right, we can’t be blamed for secretly longing to finish those ruthlessly chopped-off plots. If only they also existed in real life, in full.
The Pony Party! by Loney M. Setnick, from The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket
If you were a Lemony Snicket superfan, the kind who had every Series of Unfortunate Events book lined up on your shelf, you probably also read The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket. And if you read the hardcover, you saw the genius reversible cover, which allowed you to hide what you were reading from Snicket’s enemies. On the other side of the dust jacket was a cover design for a book called The Pony Party!, from a series called The Luckiest Kids in the World! As the flap copy points out, everybody does love both ponies and parties ... so what’s not to love about this book? Especially since the world clearly needs more Lemony Snicket -- ahem, we mean Loney M. Setnick. Unfortunately, it’s not real. But shouldn’t it be?
Magical Me by Gilderoy Lockhart, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s series is packed to the gills with bewitching fictional books -- spell books, magical history books, broomstick guides, even comic books -- and Rowling has even graciously written three of them into existence. (Tales of Beedle the Bard made for a particularly satisfying read.) Somehow, though, Gilderoy Lockhart’s self-aggrandizing memoirs have a special appeal. Maybe it’s Lockhart’s own zany charisma in the books, or the absurdly assonant titles of the books (Gadding With Ghouls, Travels With Trolls, Wandering With Werewolves), but something tells us the books would be bombastic, cheesy, and full of literally unbelievable adventures. Magical Me takes the lead with its sheer narcissism, but honestly we’d love to read any Lockhart creation.
Poems by John Shade, from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire begins with a poem-within-a-novel -- a fictional poem titled “Pale Fire” written by a character in the novel, John Shade -- and is presented as a commentary on the poem. Packed with footnotes and digressions that increasingly reveal the narrator’s loose grip on reality, the book creates a troubling psychological portrait built around a fictional literary history. As perfect as the novel itself is -- and it’s a stunning achievement -- it makes us long to read John Shade’s other books of poetry. Though Nabokov doesn’t have much of a reputation as a poet, at least not comparable to his reputation as a novelist, “Pale Fire” has an elegance, clarity and musicality worthy of Nabokov. It makes us wonder what it would be like to curl up with John Shade’s Poems, referenced in Pale Fire. We’ll have to be satisfied with Nabokov’s own poetry instead.