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.
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.