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The Book of Secrets, and Other Secret Books

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The following is a guest post by Mark F. Hall, a research specialist in the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Section.

The Library’s reference staff receives many Ask a Librarian questions from people trying to locate particularly hard-to-find books. However, we’ve gotten a surprising number of questions from people looking for several books that, it turns out, are widely and definitively known not to exist.

The most commonly requested example is the President’s Book of Secrets. As depicted in the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the book is a fictional invention for the plot of the movie.  Obviously, there are real secrets that Presidents are made aware of during their terms of office, mostly relating to military matters and national security. The National Archives and Records Administration keeps extensive records of investigations such as that regarding the Kennedy assassination (allegedly contained in the Book of Secrets). Many of these records are “classified” and not open to the public, at least for a certain period of time, but records of that sort usually involve thousands of pages of documents and would be managed by archivists with security clearances, not neatly contained in a single volume that could be passed from one President to another.

The Book of Secrets prop from the second National Treasure motion picture was on display from July 1 to September 27 of 2008 in the “South Orientation Gallery” on the first floor of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  There was a small exhibit with a streaming video of the “Inside the Library of Congress” featurette from the National Treasure: Book of Secrets Deluxe Edition DVD, the Book of Secrets prop, the “John Wilkes Booth’s diary” prop, and three stills from the motion picture. However, it is no longer on display.

Dialogue from the movie gives the Library of Congress classification number for the book as XY234786, and also suggests that the number 3974 is somehow important.  However, this classification number is also fictitious, as there is no X series in the LC Classification system, as you can see through an outline of the system.

The secret (and fictional) XY section of the stacks in the Main Reading Room constructed for National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets
The secret (and fictional) XY section of the stacks in the Main Reading Room constructed for National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Photo by Matt Raymond.

Another book about which we’ve received several inquiries is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, made famous in a purported abridgement by William Goldman.  The “abridgement” is the novel and subsequent screenplay/film The Princess Bride by Goldman, and the Morgenstern book and author from which it is “abridged” are parts of the fictional world of the novel.

In the opening of the book, Goldman tells how his grandfather read him the story as a child but as an adult he was unable to procure a copy of the book, until he finally finds one in a library. Goldman relates that the story is just the way he remembers his grandfather reading it to him:

But before you got to it, there were maybe sixty pages dealing with Prince Humperdinck’s ancestry and how his family got control of Florin . . . and then I skipped to the third chapter, The Courtship, and that was all about the history of Guilder and how that country reached its place in the world. The more I flipped on, the more I realized Morgenstern wasn’t writing any children’s book; he was writing a kind of satiric history of his country and the decline of the monarchy in Western civilization.

But my father only read me the action stuff, the good parts, He never bothered with the serious side at all. (p. 33)

Eventually, “the abridgement got done, and you hold it in your hands.  The ‘good parts’ version” (p. 35).

A third requested non-existent work is A Joyful Guide to Lachrymology, allegedly written in 1948 by a Ronald P. Vincent.  Members of the progressive rock band “Tool” have cited this book and its teachings as having been influential to their beliefs.

It is widely believed that the existence of this book is a fiction created by the members of the band. While it is not possible to prove a negative (e.g., to say with certainty that the book does not exist), there is no evidence that any copies–published or otherwise, besides the one allegedly owned by members of the band–have surfaced.

This issue is addressed in the FAQ on the “semi-official” Tool site (questions C4-C7), which notes:

At first, many Toolophiles went scrambling all over the place to find it, through the Library of Congress’ catalogs, through used book stores, etc. No sign that it had ever existed. Then, in [a later] bio on the band, the book was referred to in this manner:

“In the summer of 1948, Ronald P. Vincent, a crop-spray contractor, moved from Kansas to Hollywood after his wife had been dismembered in a bizarre snow plough accident. Inspired by the unrelenting pain he felt, Vincent penned his first and only book, ‘A Joyful Guide to Lachrymology.'”

Based on that … interesting … story, many decided that the elusive book and religion were nothing but a red herring. After all, it is a story about a snowjob.

For the record, this title/author does not appear in the Library of Congress online catalog, OCLC WorldCat, or in the registration records of the U.S. Copyright Office (search pre-1978 records; search post-1977 records).

There are millions of real books in our collections, and still we get questions about the ones we don’t, or in some cases couldn’t possibly, have! If you can think of other examples of imaginary books that are widely thought to exist, let us know in the comments below.

Comments (16)

  1. You would be interested to know that, as a kid in the ’60s, I asked the local librarian if she had a book on secrets. She gave me a puzzled look and told me no. Of course at that time no such book existed. I grew up on science fiction, ufo’s and anything unusual. That was my first attempt as a conspiracy theorist.

  2. How about “Tobin’s Spirit Guide” from the first Ghostbusters movie.

  3. There’s actually one more layer of non-existence in “The Princess Bride”: the “reunion scene” between Buttercup and Wesley.

    (My copy of the book was published by Ballantine/Del Rey in 1987 to tie-in with the movie. The cover has a picture from the movie and says, “Now A Terrific Motion Picture.” The pagination doesn’t match the page numbers cited in the blog: the quotations cited as being on pages 33 and 35 are on pages 27 and 29 in the edition I have. The section I describe below is on pages 152-153 of my copy. But, obviously, your mileage may vary.)

    I also feel like I should say (or yell) “POSSIBLE SPOILERS.” So I just did.

    In any case…

    In part/chapter five, “The Announcement,” it reads, “(At this point in the story, my wife wants it known that she feels violently cheated, not being allowed the scene of reconciliation on the ravine floor between the lovers. My reply to her–”

    The next paragraph begins, and the print is in italics because it’s the author–William Goldman–cutting in: “This is me, and I’m not trying to be confusing, but the above paragraph that I’m cutting into now is verbatim Morgenstern….”

    He goes on to explain that he agreed with Morgenstern’s wife, and that the reunion scene should have been included, so he wrote one of his own. His editor, however, objected to this: “If you’re going to abridge a book in the author’s own words, you can’t go around sticking your own in.”

    Goldman then explains that he argued with his editor for about a month before reaching a compromise: Goldman relented, so the reunion scene would not be included in the book. But he got his editor to “agree that Harcourt would at least print up my scene–Ballantine has agreed to do the same–it’s all of three pages; big deal–and if any of you want to see what it came out like, drop a note or postcard to…,” and he gives the mailing address of Urban del Rey at Ballantine Books in New York. (Harcourt originally published “The Princess Bride” in 1973; the first Ballantine edition was issued in 1974. Presumably (or obviously) they altered the text of the original to include Ballantine’s address.)

    I read “The Princess Bride” in the early 1990s, and I actually wrote to Ballantine for a copy of the reunion scene.

    A few weeks later I received in the mail a copy of a letter “From the Desk of William Goldman,” in which he explained that the reunion scene had been printed up, but before they could sent any copies out a lawyer representing the Morgenstern estate showed up, claiming that Goldman had defamed S. Morgenstern, the *master*, with his abridgement of the book. And Goldman having he gall to write his *own* reunion scene added insult to injury. The lawyer refused to accept money, and instead insisted that they print some huge amount of the original, unabridged version of the book.

    I don’t have the letter with me, but I assume the original date on it is 1973. I remember that there were then several post scripts, each one explaining that they reunion scene was still not available because of one strange complication or another. It probably also gave a reason why the unabridged book never appeared. I think the last comment on the letter mentioned that despite all of the (supposed) troubles, they were still able to make the movie. Unfortunately, the reunion scene was still not available… yet.

    It was pretty funny, and I was pleased to have actually received something back from the publisher.

    I see that an illustrated, hardcover “30th Anniversary Edition” came out last year, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I assume they’re still replying to inquiries for the reunion scene, so they must have had to alter the publisher’s name and address again in the text.

    It would be interesting to try writing in again to see what updates–if any–Goldman added to the letter regarding the continuing delay(s)…

  4. Great post, Mark! Coincidentally, the actor Carey Elwes, who played Wesley in the film version of The Princess Bride, this week released a book about the making of the film: As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

    Also, one of our colleagues who read your post gives the Necronomicon as another example of a fictional book often thought to exist.

  5. Thanks for that Dave K. I always meant to send a request for that but never got around to it.

  6. The “Deep Six” series by Thom E. Gemcity, and “Hogwarts: A History” of course!

  7. Frist off, great page…love books, secrets, history, ancient on and so forth, I believe that there are ALOT of things kept from us, the American citizen, we are in the dark about a lot of things, maby one day through diligence and hard work these secrets and supposed non existence books will be brought to the light, hopefully that and alot of other things.secondly I had a copy of necronomicon a long time ago so how can it not exist???

  8. I realize this post is old, but I wanted to make a comment. As a librarian, there is actually a Y call number used for some government documents.

  9. So is like it says society of secrets sos mark Hamilton book actually a congress book

    • The various Society of Secrets books authored by Mark Hamilton are not Library of Congress publications, nor are any of them held by the Library.

  10. Is the presidents book myth or true
    If it is orginal why it is not reveled in public
    It is said in a film about the book
    Does the libery has the book og galelo

    • The Book of Secrets is not an authentic historical book. As noted in the blog post, it is a fictitious prop created for the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets. This movie prop was loaned to the Library of Congress by Disney and displayed from July 1 to September 27, 2008, in the South Orientation Gallery on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

  11. There is the curious case of Venus on the Half Shell by Kilgore Trout – most famous work of a fictional author belonging to Kurt Vonnegut.

    We were all astonished to find Venus on the Half Shell for sale one fine day in ~1977!

    It seems Phil Farmer was having a hard time writing under his own name and wrote a bunch of works of other author’s characters and this was one.

    Perhaps the most famous non-existent book in the last few years is the The Winds of Winter, the purported 6th book (of 7!) of The Song of Ice and Fire from George R.R. Martin.

    It’s only been 9.5 years since the 5th book came out.

    We are pretty sure the end of this series is mythical, at this point.

  12. The Necronomicon does exist…it just isn’t what everyone thinks it is…its just a book of short stories. You can buy it on Amazon. I literally own a copy.

  13. So you say a real book of secrets that President will have will be so secret that you would have to deny that it’s real. An, the section that is in the movie, I never believed it to be real. Cause if it was real that section would not actually be allowed for the public to go in. So I think a President’s Book of Secrets is real but is so secret that it’s none existent to the public. I rest my case

  14. Lastly I hope in the next national treasure movie they bring it back one more time for the 47 page of the book from the movie.

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