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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.

Quote Unquote [1]

We’ll let Ralph Waldo Emerson explain the reason for this feature. We hope we can keep it going. He said, in Quotation and Originality: “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.” And herewith the quote of the week:

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading. [Logan Pearsall Smith, Afterthoughts]

Smith (1865-1946) was an American essayist, critic, and a prolific author, famed for numerous aphorisms and epigrams, the above being a sample. He came from Millville, New Jersey—but the place evidently lacked sufficient reading material. Smith soon departed. He studied at Harvard and later at Balliol College in Oxford. He settled in England and became a British citizen.

Logan Pearsall Smith’s saying is often attributed to Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). We’re not surprised. Borges’ views and personality suggest the same sentiment. He lived his life in his mind, in his imagination. He was also much involved with books beyond just writing them. At one stage in his life he was the director of the National Library of Argentina—and one of his most famous and wondrous short stories was The Library of Babel. To this we might add that Borges translated the works of Emanuel Swedenborg into Spanish and may have picked up bits about heaven (and hell). Swedenborg, of course, had direct converse with the angels. No, Borges did not invent our quote of the week—but he did repeat it in at least one radio interview he gave. But he was, well, like we are—quoting. His interviewer just didn’t realize that. But what Borges actually did say on this subject comes quite close. He once said, and we quote: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”