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The Titling of Imagined Books

The King in Yellow (1895), a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, concerns a fictional closet play itself entitled The King in Yellow, which drives all its readers mad. Chambers was hyperbolizing the decadence of the Yellow Nineties—a nameless “yellow book” turns up in the hands of Dorian Gray. But the very idea of inventing portentous titles for fictional books caught on with the next generation of horror writers—particularly H. P. Lovecraft, to whom we owe such evocative titles as the Book of Eibon and Von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, besides the most famous of all titles without books, the terrible Al-`Azif of the mad Arab `Abd ul-Alhazred—better known by the title of its Greek translation, Necronomicon—which has the unique distinction, among imaginary books, of having been written several times over.

From Lovecraft and others the game of titles without books was picked up by Borges, who not only invented unwritten books (like The Garden of Forking Paths) but reviewed some of them—like The Approach to Mu`tasim. Through Borges the game entered the mainstream of literature. (Of course there were forerunners—Thomas Browne (in Musaeum Clausum), Thomas Urquhart (in Logopandecteision), Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy)—but all traditions have their forerunners.) Its numerous players were formerly catalogued by a website called The Invisible Library—a casualty of the recent disappearance of GeoCities, now itself only a title. The Wikipedia has its own list, including science fiction’s famous reference works—the Encyclopedia Galactica of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in Douglas Adam’s homonymous series.

The art of titling books, we see, is distinct from the art of writing books. Some authors think up titles first, write books second; but good titles, besides inspiring an author, can compel a reader’s interest on their own, even without a book to read. Look over a list of fictional books and consider how fully the atmosphere, genre, and contents of an entire book can be suggested by nothing more than a title and a name. Certainly real books deserve as much attention. And the game of imaginary books may be a useful exercise for the writers of real ones. Short stories gave writers plenty of opportunities to practice the art of the title; but most books these days are titled by someone who has only ever invented a handful of titles. Imaginary books are a chance to practice. And it gives a standard to judge titles by: if this book did not exist, what title would suffice to suggest it?

Author: Paul M. Rodriguez – pmr@ruricolist.com

——————–
German-speaking readers might feel offended by the ungrammatical Unausprechlichen Kulten. That’s not a typo, however. Lovecraft had help producing that title, and the help was, you might say, not altogether competent. Grammatical equivalents would be Von Unausprechlichen Kulten or Unausprechliche Kulten.

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4 Responses

  1. This is too good. I’ve never, ever heard of such a thing, titles without books!

    “The art of titling books, we see, is distinct from the art of writing books.” Wonderful.

    I have a feeling I’ll be coming up with book titles in my head all day.

    Great debut post at DPP, Paul.

  2. Ahhh, “The Necronomicon.” What a wonderfully evocative title. It might be my nominee for the greatest fictional title of all time.

    This post also reminds me of a favorite title from Lovecraft’s contemporary and frequent correspondent Robert E. Howard: “The Iron-Bound Book of Skelos.” And coincidentally, I just loaned Arsen a Rex Stout mystery in which the MacGuffin is an unpublished manuscript titled “Put Not Your Trust,” which seems a fine title to pop up in the midst of a murder mystery.

  3. I find that the greatest fictional titles are ones that I come across and say to myself “Oh, I should read that someday.” And, then I have to stop and tell myself that no book such as that exists. Descriptive titles relating to the story evoke such a reaction and also fictional books mentioned by characters within real books (characters which I have some affinity for and for which the book inspired them in some way) evoke that reaction in me too.

    Thanks for the link to the Wikipedia site. That was interesting. I had no idea there were so many books that mention fictional books within them.

  4. How about : “The Father of Dark Orpheus” and “Yearnigs”? I think those are some really good imaginary book titles! Really good!

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