‘The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature’: Surprisingly True to Life

“I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

Stephen King once quoted an unnamed “fairly cynical writer acquaintance” who had a strict rule when it came to writing blurbs: “Never blurb a book you’ve read and never read a book you’ve blurbed.” Cynicism aside, this notion highlights the interchangeable aspect of most book blurbs. There are the clichés (“unputdownable”) but it’s more fun to look for over-the-top praise and imagine the blurber never read the book in question.

Thomas Pynchon’s trippingly hyperbolic blurb for Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1970 novel, Nog comes to mind:

“Wow, this is some book, I mean it’s more than a beautiful and heavy trip, it’s also very important in an evolutionary way, showing us directions we could be moving in — hopefully another sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive, to take hold.”

I don’t really need to read Nog. I’m happy enough to imagine the book Pynchon describes. Soon enough, a Derek Smalls-esque voice pipes up: “Can I raise a practical question at this point?” What if the book being blurbed doesn’t exist?

Literature abounds with collections of imaginary books. In the story “The Library of Babel”, Jorge Louis Borges describes an infinite library, containing every possible variation of a 410-page book. Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller describes a bookstore with stacks that “extend for acres and acres” which contain “the Books You Needn’t Read”, “the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered”, and “the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified”, among others.

Neil Gaiman’s classic comic book series The Sandman introduces the memorable Lucien, the librarian of the strange realm known as “The Dreaming”, In August 1993’s Vertigo Jam #1, Lucien tells us, “The library of dreams is the largest library there never was. I’m sure all your books are here….Here’s one. It’s called ‘The Bestselling Romantic Spy Thriller I used to think about on the bus that would sell a billion copies and mean I’d never have to work again.’”

In Sandman’s issue #57 (Feb. 1994), he describes his library as containing: “Every book that’s ever been dreamed. Every book that’s ever been imagined. Every book that’s ever been lost.”

The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature offers a selection of blurbs for books that could line a shelf or two in Lucien’s or Borges’s libraries. It’s publisher, Cow Heavy Books, specializes in “limited-edition, perfect-bound minibooks” with limited print runs, and they describe this wonderful collection as “a catalog of textual desire, of wished-for and ideal books as described by a diverse collection of writers, critics, and text-makers. The maligned blurb form herein becomes, time and again, the entryway into unreadable books and the anticipation that comes before opening them.”

Edited by Ben Segal and Erinrose Mager, over 60 writers contribute blurbs, and the collection begins immediately, without an introduction or table of contents. The first entry, “All these violent children”, by J.A. Tyler could also apply to the entire The Official Catalog: “The way this book manipulates the world, tears it up into tiny pieces and then re-structures it, recreates it, makes of it a new state of being, this is something to behold.”

Most of the blurbs take no more than a page, and this gives the collection the feel of a book of prose poems. The reference to “potential literature” connects this book directly to the Oulipo writers such as Raymond Queneau and George Perec, and their constrained writing technique. Like the best examples from the Oulipians, The Official Catalog uses its self-imposed rules to create something intellectually and aesthetically exciting and limitless.

There are blurbs for imaginary books by famous authors, such as Michael Martone’s entry for Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Blues of the Limberlost” (“part collection of prose poetry, part entomological treatise”). There are blurbs for imaginary books whose authors are unattributed, such as Peter Markus’s entry for “The Book of Sounds” (“A book meant to be read out loud.”).

Some entries take the form of short stories about books, such as Matt Bell’s piece about “The Big Book of Infinitely Possible Timetables,” which tells a Calvino-like story about the “reader”:

“Following the Big Book’s charts, he finds another almost similar conveyance in his train’s place, one that makes him late or early to arrive at some barely other destination, one that he did not know to desire and is at first mostly familiar. Here is some new home where his wife’s face is only slightly paler, only barely broader, where his children speak more or less likably than before, and where his roast beef tastes not quite exactly unlike any other roast beef he has ever tasted.”

Bell’s curious and circular style also brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’s tale of an infinite book, “The Book of Sand”, as well as Umberto Eco’s 2009 study The Infinity of Lists, which differentiates between two methods of representing infinity. One depicts it in a closed form, “a potential infinity”.

“There is, however, another mode of artistic representation, one where we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, where we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large,” Eco writes. Into that mode falls the The Official Catalog. This is not to say that the book is highfalutin and academic. Some pieces work as twitter-length literary jokes, such as Teresa Carmody’s “Literal: A novel,” for which the entire blurb is, “Surprisingly true to life!”

Two standouts are the contributions from well-known writers Aimee Bender and Shelley Jackson. Jackson expands the concept of a blurb into an epic fantasy comparable to Pynchon’s write-up for Nog:

The Slow Book, written by an anonymous author at the dawn of literacy, on a minor planet (otherwise notable only as the source of that exceptionally hardy, not very tasty grain called ‘shef’ sowed on hostile planets as an early step to colonization), and encoded into a series of punctures on a strip of copper coiled inside a clever device, something between a player piano and an old-fashioned film projector, is being released into print, as was the author’s intention, at a rate of one word per century (local time).”

Where Jackson condenses all of time and space into a blurb, Bender turns the blurb inside-out. Her piece (for a book whose title we never discover), describes a surreal feeling that could also apply to the entire The Official Catalog.

“When I read, I generally feel transported, but when I read this book, I did actually seem to be transported,” she writes. “When I finished it, I looked up and some of the furniture in my living room had been rearranged.”

Stephen King: The ‘Art’ of the Blurb

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel”

RATING 9 / 10