Books that pretend to be found objects
December 14, 2022 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I’m fascinated by books that masquerade as unique found objects. Sometimes they pretend to be a collection of separate items (like Dennis Wheatley’s Crime Dossiers); other times, the conceit is that you have found some fictional character’s unique personal copy of a book (as with Ship of Theseus, Battle Bunny, or Quidditch Through The Ages). Can you recommend other examples? And is there a widely accepted term for this kind of book that I can search for? (Note that "metafiction" is not the term for reasons explained below.)

Note that I'm not looking for:

• Something like Pale Fire, which is metafictional but doesn't pretend that each copy is a unique found object. Within the Pale Fire universe, my copy of the book is simply one of thousands of identical copies that Kinbote arranged to have published. (On the other hand, if Nabokov had published the novel as a box full of the alledgedly real and unique index cards that John Shade wrote his poem on, with Kinbote’s comments scribbled in, then it would be exactly what I’m asking for in this question.)

* Epistolary novels, or fiction framed as a diary, unless I’m holding the actual physical letters in my hand. For example, Dracula is not what I’m asking about—in the classic Bram Stoker work, I’m clearly seeing transcriptions of the various documents. On the other hand, Griffin and Sabine is what I’m asking about; the conceit is that I can pull Griffin’s actual letter out of the actual envelope it came in.
posted by yankeefog to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Memoir from Antproof Case
Dictionary of the Khazars (and arguably some other Pavic novels)
posted by derrinyet at 6:07 AM on December 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

I've never read it and it's been a while since I looked at it, but my recollection is that House of Leaves may fit your criteria.
posted by gauche at 6:12 AM on December 14, 2022 [8 favorites]

Here to say Dictionary of the Khazars, but it was the first answer. Might be time for a re-read.
posted by chuke at 6:14 AM on December 14, 2022

Perhaps the greatest book ever found (written).... Dinotopia.
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:15 AM on December 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Damn, also came in to say Dictionary of the Khazars!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 6:17 AM on December 14, 2022

Scrapbook Story is the main TVTropes article for this sort of thing, but it’s primarily the transcribed variety.
posted by zamboni at 6:27 AM on December 14, 2022

I'm not sure which side of the line it falls, but I'll mention Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun which purports to be a translation of Severian's memoir as it came into Wolfe's possession. That is, the original BotNS is supposed to be a unique artefact in Wolfe's possession, but the book we read is his published translation of that work.
posted by crocomancer at 6:34 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs is based on and includes actual found photography, woven together to form a story.
posted by signal at 6:42 AM on December 14, 2022

The conceit of Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is that it's a memoir that was found in a bathtub.
posted by babelfish at 6:53 AM on December 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Handmaid’s Tale is like that as well - with the epilogue saying the book is a transcript of an interview found after the fall of Gilead.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:56 AM on December 14, 2022

Building Stories, by Chris Ware
posted by LionIndex at 6:57 AM on December 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Similar to the Griffin & Sabine books but aimed at children: The Jolly Postman is made up of letters and cards (and other fun things) that can be removed from envelopes.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:59 AM on December 14, 2022 [10 favorites]

If you accept children's books, The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allen Ahlberg is a collection of letters you can remove from envelopes. Its subtitle, in fact, is "Other People's Letters".
posted by kevinbelt at 6:59 AM on December 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if this qualifies, but I think a case could be made for it: If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

It alternates chapters of 2nd person narrative about you buying a much anticipated book only to discover publication errors such as chapters missing and pages out of order, and your quest to be able to read an intact copy of the book, with chapters from the book itself.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 7:05 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, I think every one of the Twin Peaks books qualifies! There's a diary, a collection of audio tapes, a collection of tape transcripts, a travel guide, and two dossiers, all novels of course but all purporting to be the thing they present as. The "found" aspect is perhaps less played up but the conceit is definitely that this thing was out there waiting to be discovered, rather than being created as fiction.
posted by babelfish at 7:19 AM on December 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: For what it is worth, now that Dracula is in the public domain, there are people producing editions that are meant to be more like what you are looking for - including some that will send you a playable record of the phonograph diary entries. The link is just one example, I believe I have seen others.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:21 AM on December 14, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I promise not to threadsit, but many of the answers so far misunderstand what I'm looking for. If one person misunderstood, I'd blame them. But when an entire thread of smart and helpful people don't understand, the fault is clearly mine! My apologies for not being clearer. Let me try to articulate it better..

I'm not just looking for books in which the text originates from a fictional universe. I'm looking for books in which the actual, physical thing I hold in my hand is presented as a unique artefact that fell into our universe.

For example, what makes Quidditch Through The Ages the Kind of Thing I'm Looking For is that it doesn't just present a transcription of a fictional text. It pretends to be the actual physical volume that Ron Weasley checked out of the Hogwart's library on January 8. Without those fake library stamps and the allegedly hand-doodled graffiti, it wouldn't be The Kind of Thing I'm Looking For.

Now, obviously, in our universe, Quidditch Through The Ages is mass produced with fake library stamps. My copy isn't actually a unique object. But it's pretending to be.

I haven't read Dictionary of the Khazars but I don't think it's is what I'm looking for. It sounds like the author has (fictionally) acquired three encyclopaedias... but he has transcribed those encyclopaedias and passed on the transcription to me. The unique physical objects that are the encyclopaedias themselves remain in his possession.

I have read A Handmaid's Tale and it's not The Kind Of Thing I'm Looking For because, again, it's presented as a transcription of a unique artefact, rather than a unique artefact itself.

Memoirs Found In A Bathtub would only be the Kind Of Thing I'm Looking For if the pages had water stains printed on them, to suggest that I had my hands on the actual original copy found in a bathtub.

Of the suggestions so far, I think the Twin Peaks books, The Jolly Postman, and the suitcase full of Dracula artefacts are The Kind Of Thing I'm Looking For.

Again, my apologies for not being clear, but I really appreciate ALL the answers, and they've helped me crystallize exactly what it is I'm trying to ask about. Please keep the great suggestions coming!
posted by yankeefog at 7:30 AM on December 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Not exactly a book, and not exactly what you're describing, but Beck's Song Reader album is not an album, but a collection of vintage-style sheet music, complete with references to publishers and songs that don't exist outside the universe of the collection.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:36 AM on December 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This Goodreads collection (Interactive Books with Removable Letters, Cards, & Other Objects) has some false positives, but covers Griffin & Sabine, The Jolly Postman and some other likely candidates.
posted by zamboni at 7:53 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With regard to terms you can use: the category "interactive books" will include (but isn't limited to) books that meet your criteria, because they have parts you can remove, open or unwrap.

I've also seen the term "epistolary paratext" used academically to describe books that imitate real documents materially as well as narratively. Bit of an obscure phrase but might be of interest.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 7:56 AM on December 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hmm! Amelia's Notebook is legit pretending to be the one and only copy of Amelia's actual notebook. There is like, a lot of trompe l'oeil stuff "taped" in.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:04 AM on December 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This Babysitters Club book is like this - this listing has pictures of the individual letters:

I loved this when I was younger, and I'm so intrigued by this question and loving diving in to the answers alongside you!
posted by monster_a at 8:11 AM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: Journey to the Last River is like this. It claims to be a copy of a diary by an unknown explorer in the Amazon rainforest. I’m almost certain that it is fabricated and the “original” doesn’t exist.
It has quite beautiful illustrations, bushcraft type diagrams and one fold out map.
posted by multivalent at 8:24 AM on December 14, 2022

Does the book’s pretensions to being an interactive and unique artifact need to be a fictional gambit to satisfy your criteria? Because if you are interested in books that are genuinely unique and “interactive” artifacts, the search term “artists books” may be of interest to you.

Also, the history of pop-ups! The work of the curator/scholar Suzanne Karr Schmidt seems likely to appeal to you.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:13 AM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: You might like McSweeney's #17, which is organized like a pile of (sometimes mysterious) mail. I think this works because it is like a single person's mail, though it is a periodical rather than a book.
posted by LKWorking at 9:43 AM on December 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A publisher is republishing public-domain epistolary novels with physical letters included. Here is Pride and Prejudice and other books are linked in the listing. Reviews from Jane Austen fans have been good.

It's been quite a few years since I had my hands on a physical copy but I remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail Book to be presented like a real shooting script complete with handwritten notes, because it was copied from an actual shooting script.
posted by muddgirl at 10:00 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ok I'll have another go and say Codex Seraphinianus might fit the bill
posted by crocomancer at 10:35 AM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Robinson Crusoe, first edition.
posted by Brian B. at 11:10 AM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: A bit tangent to what you're looking for, but Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return is an art installation that has a narrative, and contains notebooks and other writing that advance/describe that narrative, and are presented as unique artifacts (which they are) that fell into our universe (probably not).
posted by adamrice at 12:10 PM on December 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Refreshing my memory on the Monty Python book, it also includes sketches that look like they were doodled, photos that look taped in, letters from the studio & other ephemera.
posted by muddgirl at 12:59 PM on December 14, 2022

Station Eleven the graphic novel, from Station Eleven, the novel by Emily John Mandel, exists in part, from pages drawn by Maria Nguyen for the Station Eleven mini-series.
posted by coevals at 1:04 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: The Goodies File is supposedly a file of collected blackmail evidence on the Goodies (of the 1970s TV comedy show of the same name), and the followup book The Goodies Book of Criminal Records is presented as the case file they have put together for their lawyer to defend their good name.

I have a vague feeling that there are other TV tie-in books (apart from Monty Python, obviously) that do similar things, it's a reasonably easy way to put together some new material with some already-existing stuff and end up with a satisfying result.
posted by Shark Hat at 2:10 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: There were a number of old video game guides from Prima that were structured as manuscripts or documents from characters, often characters you would meet in the game. (The game manuals were generally in this style, too, although not necessarily presented as unique.) The Ultima 7: The Black Gate Prima guide in particular, iirc, was a collection of adventure notes with marginalia from a character.

(I wonder if the search term you might be looking for is "diagetic" - that is, the books themselves are diagetic - they exist in the universe of the story.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:40 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: Maybe close, but perhaps not quite what you're looking for: Venus on the Half-Shell by "Kilgore Trout".
posted by RGD at 3:38 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: There's a tie in "novel" to the videogame Tom Clancy's The Division.

The "Novel" is a survival guide detailing how to survive in an urban environment following a disaster. Scribbled in the margins (in different pen colours/pencil depending on when they were written chronologically) is a character trying to survive in the world of The Division's New York.

Its also packed with tie in materials like metro-passes, maps and photos and looks like a worn and beaten survival guide.

Sadly, the survival guide didn't amount to much in-game, I was hoping for puzzles being integrated into the game but the book was written before the game underwent some revisions. Still, its a neat read if you're into the game, the survival guide actually has a lot of really good real world advice in it.
posted by Snuffman at 3:53 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: A very silly suggestion: Mr Bean's Diary, a year in the life of the Rowan Atkinson character, with drawings, notes from the neighbors and squashed bugs. or, at least pictures of bugs and notes.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:02 PM on December 14, 2022

Best answer: Gravity Falls: Journal 3 is a reproduction of the journal found and annotated by one of hthe characters in the animated tv series Gravity Falls
posted by microscopiclifeform at 4:22 PM on December 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Not sure if World War Z did your criteria. It purports to be document created from the culled edits of anecdata from a post-war report to the UN.
Likewise The Zombie Survival Guide is in-universe referred to as The Civilian Survival Guide and is presented as an in-universe publication.
posted by Iteki at 11:29 PM on December 14, 2022

House of Leaves which seems to be an example of ergodic literature.

This is an example of a page from it.

The book presents itself as a sort of Journal/ Collage that documents the exploration of a quite mysterious house.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 3:31 AM on December 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Germans have a word for this kind of book: it's called a Mumiendruck (mummy print), 'a publication on paper that has been made to look old by artificial means or even processed to make it appear mildewed'.

The best-known examples were produced by the artist Carl Maria Seyppel (1847-1913), who patented a special method for making paper appear old. One of his early productions, Er Sie Es (He, She, It), was described as follows:
Imagine a dirty looking sackcloth covered book, 9 inches wide, 12 tall, and one half an inch thick, stitched with rough twine, the ends of which are sealed with an ugly and ancient looking seal of blue wax, with the edges of the cover ragged and frayed, and tied with leathern strings. Inside are twenty-two papyrus looking leaves, thick, grimy, stained, worn, and mutilated; the whole having the appearance of an immensely old volume that has been through fire and water, lain buried in tombs and catacombs, and has now come forth to do duty as a relic in the hands of antiquaries.
His masterpiece was the Christoph Columbus Logbuch, supposedly the diary of Columbus on his voyage to the New World, thrown overboard during a storm. 'The text is given the appearance of having been written by hand, and the edges of the pages are flecked with sand and jagged. The paper itself has been made to look as if it was once coated in seawater and salt, with green stains throughout.' It even has seaweed and seashells attached to the binding.

True story: I used to work in a large library, and we would regularly get enquiries from people who had a copy of the Columbus book and thought it was a genuine manuscript. They would sometimes refuse to believe it was a regularly published book ('Whaddya mean it's a book? Look, it's got seashells on it!') so we used to keep another copy behind the counter, to prove to them that their copy wasn't unique.
posted by verstegan at 12:09 PM on December 15, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The Scholomance Freshman Student handbook is like this. It purportedly belongs to El Higgins and has her notes to herself scribbled inside.
posted by blueberry monster at 2:56 PM on December 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

This YouTube video calls the genre of book you seem to be looking for "ergodic literature" (same term SweetLiesOfBokonon uses) and has some book reviews you could check out to see if they're your speed.

Books in the video:
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
Cybertext by Espen J Aarseth
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Milo and the Magical Stones by Marcus Pfister
S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams
The Unfortunates by BS Johnson
The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville
Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Night Film by Marisha Pessi
The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
Journey under the Sea by RA Montgomery
The Lost Jewels of Nabooti by RA Montgomery
The Iceland Wyrm (Dragonology Pocket Adventures) by "Ernest Drake"
Choice of the Vampire by Jason Steven Hill
posted by creatrixtiara at 9:55 PM on December 15, 2022

In the introduction to Don Quixote, Cervantes purports to be not its author but its "stepfather", as the novel before the reader is a Spanish translation of a work written in Arabic by someone called Cide Hamete Benengeli.
posted by kandinski at 3:49 AM on December 16, 2022

Best answer: Just chiming in one more time as someone who studied ergodic literature in graduate school that ergodic literature is not the term you want, per your clarification! Ergodic literature is works where nontrivial action is required from the reader in order to create the story out of available text—like a text game, or a Choose Your Own Adventure, or a book like Hopscotch that needs to be rearranged by the reader. (I'm not familiar with all of these texts but I would not include Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a typical codex book with an extratextual element.) Of the books on that list I'm familiar with, S. and Bats of the Republic would also qualify as the kind of faux artifact text you're looking for, but not because they're ergodic. (It sounds like you are already aware of S.)
posted by babelfish at 10:41 AM on December 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

My father was a reference librarian at the Humanities desk at a big city library when I was young. He'd get a lot of questions he'd tell about when he got home (anonymised, of course). Sometimes the answers were amazing, and sometimes it was just astonishment about how people lost the ability to ask a coherent question in that context.

So one day he comes home with someone trying to look up an old work that he'd seen referenced heavily. My father tried to follow these leads and see if he could find any path to digging up rare collections or possibly research articles. Little details kept raising questions, but he had to explore this library patron's reasoning through to make sure it wasn't just something lost in translation.

"Are you sure this is about two nations? It could be from an economic treatise: Florin and Guilder are both words for currencies."

The novel of The Princess Bride presented itself as an abridgement (or "good parts edition") of a much older work, very much like Don Quixote (which I am happy to see was mentioned two comments up).
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 9:07 AM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! I appreciate all the answers. I marked as Best Answer the ones that seem to be The Kind Of Thing I'm Looking For In This Specific Question, but even the ones that weren't Exactly The Kind Of Thing look like great fun.

With the help of all these suggestions, I think I've figured out the clearest and simplest way to articulate what I was looking for. I'm not sure how useful it is, now that the thread has run its course, but for anybody who is still wondering what I was asking:

• Sometimes an author pretends they have found a manuscript, and they are hanging on to the original but giving you a transcribed copy.

• Sometimes the author pretends they are handing you the original, physical copy they found, and the publisher uses various typographical and printing techniques to create that illusion.

I was not asking for examples of the first kind of book. I was asking for examples of the second kind.

I think the clearest example of the distinction is:

This edition of Dracula is not what I was looking for. But this edition is.

Again, thanks to all!
posted by yankeefog at 2:18 AM on December 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This Indiana Jones diary Just turned up on Facebook for me. Looks like tat, and there’s emojis in the link so I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but though if you n
posted by Iteki at 7:53 AM on December 22, 2022

Haha, I just got the same Facebook ad as Iteki and came here to post it.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:26 AM on December 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

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