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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“He complained that he couldn’t open the cabinets, that they were locked or something. You know, where Harold keeps all the old maps. No one ever buys one, but people love to look at them all the same,” Katie said. “And that was my proof.”

“What, that’s he’s a sensitive guy with the soul of a cartographer?” Emmy said. “That you long to explore uncharted lands down under with him?”

“No,” Katie said. “That was my proof that he’s they type who’s strong, good-looking, and talks a good game but thinks the Spanish Inquisition is a dance move and spends all day pushing on a door that says pull.”

“I don’t get it.”

Katie leaned closer. “The cabinet drawers have a latch right near the handle that you have to press to get them to open. A latch! Sure, it’s integrated into the handle, but it’s still there! He thought they were locked because he couldn’t find the latch. I bet he buys a new car whenever his old one runs out of gas too.”

It meant sitting between Tarkovsky and Miller, and life offers few choices more dismal than that.

Now, one naturally assumes people who work in bookstores to have a natural love of learning and language, much the same as one expects this of librarians or professors. While there were numerous counterexamples littering the store (gum-popping Sherry or chain-clad G√ľnther, for instance), Tarkovsky and Miller fit the assumption to a tee. Both were intelligent and articulate and made no secret of how delighted they were to inflict both on an unsuspecting world.

How, then, was the word ‘dismal’ to be associated with them?

Tarkovsky (not his real name, but nevertheless what everybody called him) was a pedantic formalist, delighting in the rules, structure, and grammar that suffuse written and spoken communications. He savored pointing out and bitterly mocking any perceived infractions, from split infinitives to dangling participles to unnecessary vowels (a passionate follower of Noah Webster, he disdained foreign spellings). Miller, for his part, was a linguistic freethinker, fascinated by finding convoluted and unusual ways to express himself. He verbed nouns, dangled participles, and engaged in Spoonerism as a parlor game. If a sentence couldn’t be twisted into an avant-garde puzzle for a listener to riddle out, he wasn’t interested in it.

So, needless to say, fierce battle would soon be joined.