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  Reviews of This Book

Reviews of Nonexistent Books

Stanislaw Lem is one of my favorite authors. I no longer remember when or how I discovered him, but afterward I read everything of his I could get my hands on. At that time, he was still writing, and also some of his old books still hadn't been translated, so every few years I'd get the nice surprise of seeing a new Lem book at the bookstore. Then, all at once it seemed, three confusingly similar books appeared. I read them, of course, since they were by Lem, but later I realized I didn't actually like them very much. They all had to do with nonexistent books. One, A Perfect Vacuum, consisted of reviews; another, Imaginary Magnitude, of introductions; the third, One Human Minute, had some of both.

The only one that I have handy, A Perfect Vacuum, begins by reviewing itself … or, rather, an alternate-reality version of itself that contains a long introduction.

Reviewing nonexistent books is not Lem's invention; we find such experiments not only in a contemporary writer, Jorge Luis Borges (for example, his “Investigations of the Writings of Herbert Quaine”), but the idea goes further back—and even Rabelais was not the first to make use of it. A Perfect Vacuum is unusual in that it purports to be an anthology made up entirely of such critiques.

Gene Wolfe, another favorite author, once wrote a review of a nonexistent movie. I like it a little better than the Lem reviews … but only a little. Still, I have to admit the following image is very nice.

The earlier episodes, in which each character explains or at least attempts to explain the plot, were completed in various parts of the Low Countries several years ago. They are laid in and around New York, and the effect of traffic simulated by putting cars, trucks, buses, and subway trains aboard canal boats is at times very pleasing.

I can't say that Jorge Luis Borges is a favorite author, since I've only read one collection of his stories, and haven't been motivated to seek out any others. I do like and remember a few of the stories, though, particularly Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

… truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

… truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor—are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

Is this or is this not a discussion of a nonexistent book?

Borges wrote other stories that involve nonexistent books. I'm not going to try to catalogue them, since I'm not sufficiently familiar with his work; instead, I'll quote a little remark I happened to see in Borges - Quotations.

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary … More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

I'd also like to mention one other Borges story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which is mostly about an imaginary encyclopedia. I like that one not just because it's good in itself, but also because it reminds me of the Codex Seraphinianus, which was described by Hofstadter in Stuff and Nonsense (right at the very end).

Codex Seraphinianus is a much more elaborate work. In fact, it is a highly idiosyncratic magnus opus by an Italian architect indulging his sense of fancy to the hilt. It consists of two volumes in a completely invented language (including the numbering system, which is itself rather esoteric), penned entirely by the author, accompanied by thousands of beautifully drawn color pictures of the most fantastic scenes, machines, beasts, feasts, and so on. It purports to be a vast encyclopedia of a hypothetical land somewhat like the earth, with many creatures resembling people to various degrees, but many creatures of unheard-of bizarreness promenading throughout the countryside.

I myself once saw a copy of the Codex … a big, solid thing, and beautiful, just as Hofstadter described it. Even the script was beautiful! A few months later, I returned to the prodigious library in which I'd found it, but it was gone … not checked out and reported lost, just nowhere to be found. I've never seen a copy since.

If we generalize from reviews of nonexistent books to simple references, the number of books naturally becomes much larger; see for example the list of fictional books at Wikipedia. In particular, I'd like to mention Lovecraft and his Necronomicon. However, for me there's a very fine line between a book that doesn't exist in the real world, which is mildly interesting, and a book that does exist in some fictitious world, which is much less so.

Another specialized category is translations of nonexistent books. The Hobbit, for example, is supposed to be a translation of There And Back Again, and similarly the Soldier books (Wolfe again) are supposed to be translations of the scrolls Latro wrote.

Finally, to get back to reviews, and to Hofstadter, there's the book Reviews of This Book, which only fails to exist because it hasn't been written yet. For reasons that are now mysterious to me, I chose to talk about it in a subessay.


  See Also

  Works by Lem, Categorized

o March (2000)
@ November (2006)