When Cynthia Gibson, a bookseller in New York, casually mentioned “non-existent books” in a recent note I presumed she was referring to deascensions from Milton Berle’s joke library:
The Old Man, the Bull, and the Boat. Hemingway’s melding of his two favorite pastimes, deep sea fishing and bullfighting, set within the confines of a small dingy. The fish are biting. The bull is charging. Drama and suspense ensue.
Tom Jones in Vegas. The sequel to Henry Fielding's novel of a foundling follows our randy hero to the nadir of his existence as a tin-eared troubador singing eighteenth century songs to highly aroused ladies-in-waiting and throwing waistcoat, scarves, and underwear to the hungry damsels. After-show under the sheets shenanigans follow in the Palace penthouse suite, ‘natch!
Alas, no. What Cynthia was referring to were real non-existent books – as opposed to phony non-existent books.
Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov were notorious for shelving imaginary volumes within their own books. At one point in Lolita, for example, Humbert Humbert is reading a Who's Who bio of his rival, Clare Quilty, author of, among others, Fatherly Love and The Little Nymph.
These two writers created not only dozens of titles and author bios, but also the books’ plots and, in some cases, their entire printing and bibliophilic histories! Borges reports that, sadly, there are only seven extant copies of Lesbare und lesenwerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien by Johann Valentin Andreä, a book from 1641. No such book. Nabokov even includes a completely false bibliography of his own oevre in his last published novel, Look at the Harlequins!
Let’s not forget that classic of imaginary literature, the Necronomicon, which H.P. Lovecraft nightmared up, but that other writers have cited in their own work. This has led to booksellers receiving want lists that include it from collectors who don't realize the book is a put-on and are seeking it out.
The advantages to collecting non-existent books are clear: no money, no shelf space, and no reading time required. It’s the perfect genre for the on-the-go, attention-deficient collector living in a closet.
Here’s an existing check list of non-existent books. Enjoy! (in your imagination).