Borges once wrote of a secret society dedicated to bring about the replacement of our world by another by methodically documenting every facet of the new world in an encyclopedia; the facts about the new world would gradually replace those of the old through substitution, forgery, and dissemination of altered or completely fictional books. After all, if books (and their successors) can be altered, and they form the only record of the world beyond what people have seen with their own eyes, to change them is to change all.

I believe that someone may have taken that tale to heart.

In my role as a regional coordinator for a major consortium of libraries, I hear a lot of scuttlebutt about books and such; in my previous life I worked for Merchant & Field Booksellers and still maintain some contacts there. Lately my librarians on the one hand and my booksellers on the other have been bringing me texts that, quite frankly, don’t make any sense.

They run the gamut from leather-bound to cheap pulp and bear realistic-sounding but totally false publishers. Real love went into their creation, unlike some of the publish-on-demand crap that bubbles up. Yet the world they describe so blithely and without elaboration is an alien one, like the place I live but in many ways completely different.

The publication dates, for one. Who would create a fake book with a date fifty or a hundred years in the future, or one using a date system (PC) that seems to have begun counting three or four years ago? I’ve read many of the titles, and they are rife with descriptions of kingdoms and empires alongside cell phones and sports cars–the sort of thing many cheap and terrible books aspire to, it’s true. I think they describe a world like ours in which most nation-states have collapsed and in which technology has largely stagnated among the ruins of a fragmented USA. Stagnation and fragmentation, or stagmentation, or fragnation if you prefer.

The kind of internal consistency I’ve seen seems to belie the theory that it’s a single kook slipping these onto shelves. It’s almost enough to make me believe that these crazyquilt places, these Beral Lands, Vativia, Eastern and Outland Empires, or the Rift actually exist somewhere.

That’s crazy of course. But is a Borgesian attempt to alter the fabric of our reality any less so, or an elaborate and expensive literary prank so obtuse that only a handful of booksellers and archivists worldwide could get the joke? Next to that, sometimes I’m willing to allow that these books, these tawdry novels and single volumes of larger works, have simply slipped through some crack from one place to another.

After all, as Borges said, what would someone in another world make of one of our encyclopedias? What would the advanced but fragmented, stagnant but vibrant places I read in these mystery books think if this writing wound up on their own computer screen?

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Clarence continued to read the text:

“Look, I know it seems a little odd,” said the Grimoire. “Why trust a book, after all?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Clarence. “I’m more worried about this book pulling a Neverending Story on me and changing to reflect what I’m thinking or saying.”

“No shit,” Clarence muttered. But he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the page.

“How do you expect a book to speak with you?” the Grimoire cried. “How else but through the text? It’s not like a book has a mouth or vocal cords. And yes, I know in the context of the book you’re reading I’ve got lines and quote marks just like something with lips would. But that’s just for your sake. It may be confusing but just run with it.”

“All right,” said Clarence. “And my thoughts are apparently my dialogue, since even though I have lips I’m definitely not flapping them.”

“More or less,” said the Grimoire. “They’re edited a bit for coherence and to remove the occasional intrusive thought like fantasies about that girl in high school you never had the courage to ask out or even talk to.”

Clarence reddened. “Sheesh,” he mouthed.

“What do you want from me?” Clarence said.

“Oh, it’s simple,” said the Grimoire. “On the last page of me there’s an inscription. I need you to take me to the Pillars of Vladizapad and read them aloud in a commanding voice.”

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I even tended to refer to him with the informal pseudo-affectionate nickname “Teddy” even though I knew through a little bit of research that he’d hated being called that by anyone who wasn’t a close family member. Then again, Theodore Marlowe was the sort that knew the value of a name: born John Theodore Marlow, it had taken the judicious dropping of a too-common first name and the addition of an unnecessary vowel to make his a name fit for literary immortality.

Deerton held its annual Marlowe Days events at the same time as the county fair as the only vestige of tourism a tiny burg like that was able to eke out. After all, Teddy had been born at what was then Deerton General (now Infrared Health Systems Mid-Michigan Campus no. 27) and attended what was then Deerton Elementary (now John T. Seymour Elementary) until the age of 10, when his family had moved to Grand Rapids and thence to Detroit. He’d been shortlisted for a Nobel, his novels and stories were still in print, and film adaptations had made millions of dollars over the years.

I prickled a little under the management role I had in Marlowe Days, though, for the simple reason that Theodore Marlowe hadn’t been all that find of Deerton at all. Biographies tended to give us a sentence, if we were lucky, before going into exhaustive detail on Marlowe’s days in Grand Rapids and Detroit. I had been through reams of interviews, and all the man ever had to say about us was negative. There was the CBS interview from 1969 where he talked of “escaping the stultifying atmosphere of small-town mundanity,” for instance, or the 1978 radio talk where he said “everything that made me who I am is of the furniture and automotive cities.”

As in not Deerton.

After moving away, he hadn’t visited once despite plenty of Marlow and Higginsfield relatives. Invitations to speak at DHS commencements or other events were returned unopened. His books, powerful as they were, spoke to the salad days of Michigan industry giving way to the rust belt.

Big city problems.

Only in death, it seemed, did Teddy have anything for us. His estate agreed to Marlowe Days less than two months after the author died in 1980.

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John had thought that an engagement at the Association of American English Teachers would be just the thing he needed to help get his book off the ground. His publisher had crowed that he’d be autographing and selling books on the exhibition floor to people who routinely bought 23 copies each. In addition to the hefty amount he’d sunk into promotion, John sprang for boxes of copies to autograph and sell.

The reality? He’d sold, and signed, maybe 3 books.

John’s publisher had neglected to mention that, at any one time, there were dozens of authors on the exhibit floor. And when one of those authors was Jenny Norman, author of the acclaimed YA “Otherwheres” series, and another was fantasy author Michael C. McConnolly, whose books were on their third blockbuster miniseries…

In fact, the only real movement on John’s end had been passing teachers stealing copies of his book when he went to the bathroom or was in any way distracted for the briefest of moments (the Elsigraw Publishers staff ostensibly manning the booth had long since snuck off to meet up with other vendors for drinks). He’d lost 30 copies that way, and while the thought that they might end up in a library was some consolation, each of those books was a good $5 walking merrily away.

A booth runner from Scholar Specialty Imprints next door offered the only assistance. “These English teachers are underfunded parasites,” he said. “They have so little money for textbooks and libraries that they fill their bags with books here to make up for it. The big companies give away so many handfuls of free books that they get all glaze-eyed, taking everything that isn’t nailed down.”

“What do we do, then?” John asked.

“The big boys have a staff to keep an eye on their tchotchkes and keep the teachers from sneaking away with any swag unless they listen to a sales pitch. Us? Just hope that one or two interested customers show up amidst the leeches.”

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