“To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed.” — Jorge Luis Borges
Catalogues of imaginary libraries are an obscure but fruitful area of collecting. The tradition of imaginary books, which exist only within other books, goes back at least to Rabelais, who invented a list of book titles for the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Gargantua and Pantagruel (c. 1532).
Famous imaginary books include the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in Douglas Adams’ series of the same name, and The Red Book of Westmarch in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Some works of fiction take it a step further with the addition of footnotes to imaginary books, such as the fictitious history texts cited in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
Numerous works of fiction use the concept of imaginary libraries, often with mysterious or magical properties. Jorge Luis Borge’s Library of Babel is an infinite library containing all possible 410-page books, while Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University Library connects through L-space to every other library in the multiverse. In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books contains lost books preserved by a secret society. The labyrinthine monastery library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is at the heart of a dangerous mystery.
The concept of imaginary books has some overlap with hoaxes and forgeries, where the forger may be attempting to invent or recreate a book that never truly existed. One of my favorite examples of this is The Old Librarian’s Almanack, an fictitious book supposedly first published in 1773 and reprinted in 1909. It was a pamphlet in the style of Poor Richard’s Almanac, presenting the opinions and advice of a librarian in 1773. The true author, Edmund Lester Pearson, published the “reprint” with his friends, John Cotton Dana and Henry W. Kent, who owned the Elm Tree Press of Woodstock, Vermont. Wayne A. Wiegand provides an excellent summary of the whole episode in The History of a Hoax: Edmund Lester Pearson, John Cotton Dana, and The Old Librarian’s Almanack (1979). For more on the subject of literary forgeries, see Forging a Collection: The Frank W. Tober Collection on Literary Forgery (1999).
Although I am intrigued by many types of fictional libraries, this particular collection focuses solely on the concept of catalogues or bibliographies of imaginary libraries. These may range from a simple list of titles to book reviews, cover designs, or excerpts from the imaginary books themselves.
Catalogues of Imaginary Libraries:
Bibliotheca Fanatica, or, The Phanatique Library: Being a Catalogue of Such Books as Have Been Lately Made and by the Authors Presented to the Colledge of Bedlam. London: 1660; reprinted 1811.
Brown, Thomas. Musaeum Clausum, or Bibliotheca Abscondita: Containing Some Remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities, of Several Kinds, Scarce or Never Seen by Any Many Now Living. Catalogue first printed in Miscellany Tracts, 1684; reprinted in Miscellaneous Writings, 1931.
Donne, John. The Courtier’s Library, or, Catalogus Librorum Aulicorum Incomparabilium et Non Vendibilium. Catalogue first printed in Poems, 1650; reprinted separately 1930.
Feodor Vladimir Larrovitch, an Appreciation of his Life and and Works. Edited by William George Jordan and Richardson Wright. New York: The Authors Club, 1918.
Klinefelter, Walter. Books about Poictesme: An Essay in Imaginative Bibliography. Chicago: Black Cat Press, 1937.
Klinefelter, Walter. The Fortsas Bibliohoax: With a Reprint of the Fortsas Catalogue and Bibliographical Notes and Comment by Weber Devore. Catalogue first printed 1840; reprinted 1941.
La Cour, Tage. Ex Bibliotheca Holmesiana: The First Editions of the Writings of Sherlock Holmes. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Baker Sreet Irregulars, 1951.
Lem, Stanisław. A Perfect Vacuum. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Rabelais, François. Catalogue of the Choice Books Found by Pantagruel in the Abbey of Saint Victor: Devised by François Rabelais: Translated and Annotated by Walter Klinefelter, a Student of Catalogues. Printed in Pantagruel, c. 1532; translated and printed separately, 1952.
Rolfe, Frederick. Frederick Rolfe’s Reviews of Unwritten Books. Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1985. 4 vols. Originally printed in the Monthly Review.
Rubens, Charles and J. Christian Bay. The Dummy Library of Charles Dickens at Gad’s Hill Place. Chicago, Illinois: Privately Printed, 1934.
Scharioth, Barbara. The Fish, the Piano, and the Wind: An Imaginary Library. Hamburg: Carlsen, 2009.
Segal, Ben. The Official Catalogue of the Library of Potential Literature. New York: Cow Heavy Books, 2011.
Stanley, Joan C. Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library. West Warwick: Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press, 1993.
Steiner, George. My Unwritten Books. New Directions, 2008.
Sweet, Pat. This is Not a Book. Riverside, California: Bo Press, 2010.
Tuleja, Tad. The Catalog of Lost Books: An Annotated and Seriously Addled Collection of Great Books that Should Have Been Written But Never Were. New York: Fawcette Columbine, 1989.
Watson, Alex P. Excerpts from Nonexistent Books: Short Selections from Books that Don’t (or Shouldn’t) Exist. CreateSpace, 2012.
Wharton, Thomas. The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2004.
Wilson, Paul. The Invisible Library. LitDistco, 2013.
“Bibliographic Ghosts.” Collection Management 8, no. 3 & 4 (1986): pp. 109-112.
Blumenthal, Walter Hart. Imaginary Books and Phantom Libraries. G.S. MacManus, 1966.
Carpenter, Edwin H. Some Libraries We Have Not Visited: A Paper Read at the Rounce & Coffin Club, August 26, 1947. Castle Press, 1947.
Credland, W.R. “Imaginary Books and Libraries.” Papers of the Manchester Literary Club 17 (1891): p. 285-291.
Folter, Roland. “Printed in the Mind of Man: The Strange World of Catalogues of Imaginary Books.” International Association of Bibliophiles Transactions, XXVth Congress. 2011.
Houghton Library. Bibliotheca Chimaerica: A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Catalogues of Imaginary Books. 1962.
Juel-Jensen, Bent. “Musaeum Clausum, or Bibliotheca Abscondita: Some Thoughts on Curiosity Cabinets and Imaginary Books.” Journal of the History of Collections 4, no. 1 (1992) : pp. 127-140.
Nipps, Karen. “The Cover Design.” Library Quarterly 77, no. 2 (2007): pp. 241-245.
Ruthven, K.K. “From Imaginary Libraries to Ficto-Bibliography: Performing Fiction as Fact.” Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin 27, no. 1-2 (2003): pp. 14-27.
Spargo, John Webster. Imaginary Books and Libraries: An Essay in Lighter Vein.
Stephens, Walter. “Livres de haulte gress : Bibliographic Myth from Rabelais to Du Bartas.” MLN 120, no. 1 (2005): p. S60-S83.