Within literature’s greatest books lives another library of books, unpublished and unwritten, nested in other books, imagined by their authors and materialized only in the imaginations of their readers — a painfully vast body of potentially brilliant work that we’ll never get to hold in our hands. That’s not to say that every meta-book is a must-read; take for example The Dictionary of the Finnish Language by Caprinulge, which features in Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow — completely unreal and yet completely not something we’d choose to leaf through. Similarly, the white-supremacist The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard, thought up by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby is not all that high on our wish list. But then there are titles that, wholly made up, sound like they might be even more captivating than the books they live in. And it’s those that we never stop hoping will one day be in print. After the jump, peruse 16 titles we’d add to our bookshelves, if only we could.
“Higher Education” by Nathan Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
The Ghost Writer, like most of Roth’s books, is a never-ending layer cake of hypertext, filled with stories and stories about stories about stories. That we never get to read any works by the writers he endlessly talks up is an unavoidable frustration of reading Roth. But the unreadable story whose unreadability nags us most is his character Nathan Zuckerman’s short story “Higher Education.” Its publication is the source of a continuous dispute with his father, in a novel all about a boy with daddy issues. And while we get a three-page synopsis of the plot — a great aunt and uncle go to court over access to a trust fund — we struggle to figure out who is in the right, Zuckerman or his father, and make sweeping moral judgments without any understanding of how it all started.
Starscourge by Oscar de León, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
This unfinished space opera, authored by the title character of Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, arrives on his sister’s doorstep after his brutal death. The uncompleted manuscript would flesh out our understanding of Oscar as a writer and man and, along with a letter to his sister, is the only thing that could constitute a legacy for this outlier. While the space opera section of our library is pretty much over capacity as it is, we would do anything to squeeze this one in.
Now It Can Be Told by Kilgore Trout, in Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout is branded as a prolific but mediocre sci-fi writer, largely unknown in the literary world. But his fiction is convincing enough for at least one zealous reader, businessman Dwayne Hoover, who thinks that Kilgore’s novel — written as a message from the Creator of the Universe to the one free-willed man in a world of robots — is actually a message from the Creator of the Universe, telling him he is the single free-willed man in a world of robots. Hoover, of course, goes nuts, beats up his robot family, and winds up in jail.
“The Murder of Gonzago” in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The famous play nested within Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Murder of Gonzago tells a story similar to that of Hamlet Sr.’s murder and is performed by a group of touring players, on Hamlet’s request, while he watches for an incriminating reaction in his uncle Claudius that will confirm that he has blood on his hands. Not the best method by which to conduct a murder trial, perhaps, but we enjoyed the story of Hamlet, and since Gonzago is basically its prequel, we imagine it would make for a good read.
“The Middle Years” by Dencombe , in The Middle Years by Henry James
In the Henry James’ story “The Middle Years,” a physician and ardent reader, Dr. Hugh, becomes infatuated with a dying writer who is his patient — Dencombe, author of the book The Middle Years. We haven’t read it, obviously, but if his writing is really worthy of Dr. Hugh’s great admiration, then we’d gladly replace our James collection with Dencombe’s.
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, in If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino’s book If on a winter’s night a traveler is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler by a writer named Italo Calvino. Stay with us. The book switches off narrative mode every chapter, with odd chapters addressing a “you” with instructions regarding how to read the next chapter “you” are about to read, and even chapters being those chapters out of that book. Except, every time you reach an even chapter, expecting to resume reading the story Calvino keeps interrupting, you’re simply met by the first chapter of a new book. This book is the Groundhog Day of literature, and while each new first chapter is captivating in its own right, “you” can’t brush off the desire to get that non-existent book read once and for all.
The Transfiguration of the Commonplace by Sandy Stranger, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The protégé and confidante of her teacher Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s character Sandy goes on to sell out her progressive, fascist teacher to the school’s conservative headmistress and get her fired, right after sleeping with Brodie’s lifelong crush, the headmaster, and right before becoming Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and writing this magnum opus on psychology. Move over, Freud; a psychological analysis by a tightly wound, cultish nun is exactly what our bookshelf is missing.
The Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of the original zombie stories, a narrator goes over to his ill friend Roderick’s house to keep him company and ends up reading Sir Launcelot Canning’s book, The Mad Trist, to pass the time. But when Roderick’s supposedly dead sister escapes her coffin, busts in, and attacks Roderick, the narrator never gets around to finishing Canning’s medieval romance tale. This is especially sad because Canning’s book seems to have some spooky Wizard of Oz–Dark Side of the Moon connection with the haunted house of Usher; as the narrator begins to hear remote sounds — which we later find out are the sounds of Roderick’s sister escaping — he points out that they match perfectly with the events occurring within Canning’s story. Because, thanks to George A. Romero and zombie movie-makers that followed, we know that zombie sounds are pretty distinct, it’s not far-fetched to conclude that Canning’s The Mad Trist must have itself been a medieval zombie book.
The Further Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, in The Man Who Collected Poe by Robert Bloch
Having been a short-story writer for the bulk of his career, Edgar Allan Poe completed just a single novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a story of Pym’s wild sea adventures aboard various whaling ships. This is its unwritten sequel. The first set was a page-turner, and we could always hear another whaling ship story.
Azathoth and Other Horrors by Edward Pickman Derby, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft
The protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Edward Pickman Derby was a prolific literary genius from age seven. Likely a fantasy upgrade of little Lovecraft himself, Derby published his collection of “nightmare-lyrics” at age 18 under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors, which made a splash with the literati of the day, the day being in fictional 1908. We’re thinking if Lovecraft so clearly wishes he were Derby, the guy can’t be a bore.
Voyages with Vampires by Gilderoy Lockhart, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
If its ability to capture the heart of every female witch in England speaks to its potential for popularity, then the adventurous account written by defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart would have been a promising next big vampire flick. After Lockhart was exposed as a charlatan in an embarrassing scandal at Hogwarts, the book would have to move over to the fiction section, but let’s be honest — people have done worse for fame.
How to Catch Lighting and Smoke by E. Peavine, in Summerland by Michael Chabon
While Chabon’s Summerland protagonist Ethan is playing baseball to save the world, he comes across an oddity, a matchbook-sized book bound in green leather and stamped with golden letters. The book is all about the catcher position in baseball but is also a poignant rumination on the nature of the game itself: “A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day,” the wise Peavine writes.
The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, in The Princess Bride by William Goldman
The Princess Bride by Goldman, and the film adaptation we all know and love, describes itself as the abridged version of S. Morgenstern’s original The Princess Bride, a much lengthier satire with a similar plot line. Goldman made a running joke out of the fake author by publishing more work under the name S. Morgenstern, but we’re still waiting for one of those works to be the “original” The Princess Bride.
Encyclopedia Galactica by various, in “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov
First mentioned in Isaac Asimov’s 1942 story “Foundation,” the Galactica is a Britannica-type all-knowledge repository — but one that belongs to a civilization spanning the entire galaxy. The Galactica has been alluded to in a host of science fiction works after Asimov’s, including, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose meta-book of the same title is meant to be the condensed layman’s version of the Galactica. Think OED versus Webster’s.
Groundwork by Jakob Beer, in Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces is split into two books; the first is the story of Jakob Beer, a young Jewish boy who’s rescued from the Nazis by a geologist, grows up on a Greek island, and becomes a writer. The second is the story of Ben, a Canadian professor and fan of Jakob’s poetry. The abrupt changeover from one man’s perspective to the other’s is a bit jarring, since, really, the only thing that ties them together is Ben’s admiration for Jakob’s poetry — which we never get to read. Groundwork, his collected poems, would make for a good Book 2.5.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, in The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Dick’s The Man in the High Castle chronicles an alternate history of a WWII won by the Axis and a post-war occupied US. Its title character’s book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, chronicles a meta-alternate history — banned, of course, by the occupying authorities — in which WWII is won by the Allies but results in a world that is nothing like the one we live in.