Charles Dickens (Channeling Jorge Luis Borges) Created a Fake Library, with 37 Witty Invented Book Titles


I don’t know about you, but I’ve sort of always asso­ci­at­ed Charles Dick­ens with the kind of humor­less moral­ism and didac­tic sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty that are hall­marks of so much Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture. That’s prob­a­bly because the work of Dick­ens con­tains no small amount of humor­less moral­ism and didac­tic sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. But it also con­tains much wit and absur­di­ty, inven­tive char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and rich descrip­tion. While nov­els like the short Hard Times, pub­lished in 1854, can seem more like thin­ly veiled tracts of moral phi­los­o­phy than ful­ly real­ized fic­tions, oth­ers, like the strange and whim­si­cal Pick­wick Papers—Dick­ens’ first—work as fan­ci­ful, light­heart­ed satires. The big, bag­gy nov­els like Great Expec­ta­tions, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities (find in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks) man­age to skill­ful­ly com­bine these two impuls­es with his own twist on the goth­ic, such that Dick­ens’ work is not over­whelmed, as it might be, by ser­mo­niz­ing.

For all of this tidy sum­ma­tion of that giant of Vic­to­ri­an let­ters, one adjec­tive now comes to mind that I would nev­er have pre­vi­ous­ly thought to apply at any time to the writer of A Christ­mas Car­ol: Bor­ge­sian, as in pos­sessed of the scholas­tic wit of 20th cen­tu­ry Argen­tine writer Jorge Luis Borges. I’m not the first to note a resem­blance, but I must say it nev­er would have occurred to me to think of the two names in the same sen­tence were it not for an extra-cur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ty Dick­ens engaged in while out­fit­ting his Lon­don home, Tavi­s­tock House, in 1851. Let­ters of Note’s sis­ter site Lists of Note brings us the fol­low­ing anec­dote:

[Dick­ens] decid­ed to fill two spaces in his new study with book­cas­es con­tain­ing fake books, the wit­ty titles of which he had invent­ed. And so, on Octo­ber 22nd, he wrote to a book­binder named Thomas Robert Eeles and sup­plied him with the fol­low­ing “list of imi­ta­tion book-backs” to be pro­duced.

You can see the complete—completely Borgesian—list below. Borges is of course well known for invent­ing titles of books that have nev­er exist­ed, but seem like they should, in anoth­er dimen­sion some­where. His inven­tion of alter­nate real­i­ties, and pub­li­ca­tions, man­i­fests in most all of his sto­ries, as well as in odd­i­ties like the Book of Imag­i­nary Beings. Like Borges’ made-up books, Dick­ens’ con­tain just the right mix of the self-seri­ous and the ridicu­lous, so as to make them at once plau­si­ble, cryp­tic, exot­ic, and hilarious—both Pick­wick­ian and, indeed, pro­to-Bor­ge­sian.

His­to­ry of a Short Chancery Suit
Cat­a­logue of Stat­ues of the Duke of Welling­ton
Five Min­utes in Chi­na. 3 vols.
Forty Winks at the Pyra­mids. 2 vols.
Aber­nethy on the Con­sti­tu­tion. 2 vols.
Mr. Green’s Over­land Mail. 2 vols.
Cap­tain Cook’s Life of Sav­age. 2 vols.
A Car­pen­ter’s Bench of Bish­ops. 2 vols.
Toot’s Uni­ver­sal Let­ter-Writer. 2 vols.
Orson­’s Art of Eti­quette.
Downeast­er’s Com­plete Cal­cu­la­tor.
His­to­ry of the Mid­dling Ages. 6 vols.
Jon­ah’s Account of the Whale.
Cap­tain Par­ry’s Virtues of Cold Tar.
Kan­t’s Ancient Hum­bugs. 10 vols.
Bow­wow­dom. A Poem.
The Quar­rel­ly Review. 4 vols.
The Gun­pow­der Mag­a­zine. 4 vols.
Steele. By the Author of “Ion.”
The Art of Cut­ting the Teeth.
Matthew’s Nurs­ery Songs. 2 vols.
Pax­ton’s Bloomers. 5 vols.
On the Use of Mer­cury by the Ancient Poets.
Drowsy’s Rec­ol­lec­tions of Noth­ing. 3 vols.
Heavyside’s Con­ver­sa­tions with Nobody. 3 vols.
Com­mon­place Book of the Old­est Inhab­i­tant. 2 vols.
Growler’s Gruffi­ol­o­gy, with Appen­dix. 4 vols.
The Books of Moses and Sons. 2 vols.
Burke (of Edin­burgh) on the Sub­lime and Beau­ti­ful. 2 vols.
Teaz­er’s Com­men­taries.
King Hen­ry the Eighth’s Evi­dences of Chris­tian­i­ty. 5 vols.
Miss Bif­fin on Deport­ment.
Mor­rison’s Pills Progress. 2 vols.
Lady Godi­va on the Horse.
Mun­chausen’s Mod­ern Mir­a­cles. 4 vols.
Richard­son’s Show of Dra­mat­ic Lit­er­a­ture. 12 vols.
Hansard’s Guide to Refresh­ing Sleep. As many vol­umes as pos­si­ble.

As Fla­vor­wire reports, design­er Ann Sap­pen­field cre­at­ed her own fake book­bind­ings with Dick­ens’ titles (see some at the top of the page, cour­tesy of the NYPL). These are part of a New York Pub­lic Library exhib­it called Charles Dick­ens: The Key to Char­ac­ter that ran in 2012–13. You can read Dick­ens orig­i­nal let­ter to Thomas Robert Eeles in The Let­ters of Charles Dick­ens here.

via Lists of Note/Fla­vor­wire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Dick­ens Gave His Cat “Bob” a Sec­ond Life as a Let­ter Open­er

Charles Dick­ens’ Hand-Edit­ed Copy of His Clas­sic Hol­i­day Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Paul Tatara says:

    My wife is a huge Dick­ens fan, and swears parts of his books are hilar­i­ous.

  • Jason says:

    I’m stunned some­thing as stu­pid as the first few sen­tences here was per­mit­ted to be post­ed.

  • Anthony Galvin says:

    If you asso­ci­at­ed Dick­ens with humour­less moral­ism, you clear­ly have not read him. A very poor effort.

  • Mark David Dietz says:

    Well, I know it’s already been said, and I hate to jump in and punch some­one who, at this point, must already be won­der­ing how to recov­er from such an unbe­liev­able howler, but … how? How could you pos­si­bly think that Dick­ens is humor­less? Have you not read any of the books you ref­er­ence? Nev­er mind, what’s done is done — and I would rec­om­mend that an apol­o­gy and an appeal to tem­po­rary insan­i­ty might be your best defense.

    And, of course, it’s equal­ly humor­less to plug away at the same issue that oth­ers have already, humor­less­ly, tak­en you to task for. So instead, shall we vis­it dear old Borges?

    “…in the case of Dick­ens I think of many men [Borges means the many char­ac­ters Dick­ens cre­at­ed]. And those many men, who are mere­ly dreams of Dick­ens, have giv­en me much hap­pi­ness. And I go on read­ing and reread­ing them.” From Borges at Eighty: Con­ver­sa­tions

    By the way, if you study much of Borges you will find he has a tremen­dous love for Dick­ens, and the idea of putting the two togeth­er in a sin­gle sen­tence is some­thing few Bor­ge­sians would blink at. You men­tion Borges’ delight in fic­ti­tious book titles, were you aware that he also coined sev­er­al texts explor­ing the idea of a writer influ­enc­ing writ­ers of the past? “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is the obvi­ous title here. But “Kaf­ka and His Pre­cur­sors” explores the issue more direct­ly. Borges saw this idea as a won­der­ful joke (I’ve known some post-mod­ernists who did­n’t get the joke and thought he was being seri­ous). He meant mere­ly that we read old­er texts dif­fer­ent­ly after new works appear that change how we see cer­tain gen­res, tropes, char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, even local col­or­ings.

    In a pro­logue to Melville’s “Bartle­by the Scriven­er” Borges men­tions Dick­ens, but not in the invert­ed sense of a pre­cur­sor some­how changed, but sim­ply to point out that the open­ing pas­sages of Bartle­by do not point for­ward to Kaf­ka, although the lat­er pas­sages and gen­er­al themes are strik­ing­ly Kafkaesque. He thought these ear­ly pas­sages actu­al­ly point back­ward to Dick­ens. Dick­ens was a strong author, strong enough to be sin­gu­lar­ly influ­en­tial, and strong enough to absorb his own pre­cur­sors, that was the unfor­tu­nate fate of Wal­ter Scott. But what Melville or Kaf­ka or Borges or any oth­ers took from Dick­ens is more like­ly to trans­form the lat­er writ­ers than it would be to trans­form Dick­ens.

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