In what became an internet sensation, an ornithologist once wrote about a colony of sparrows who, due to a genetic mutation exacerbated by the founder effect on their small offshore island home, could not sing within the range of other sparrows’ hearing. Forced to inbreed, their population grew smaller and smaller due to infertile eggs and the slow arch of time.

These birds–the “loneliest sparrows on the planet” were the subject of a documentary, a Kickstarter, and even some internet innovations aimed at making their high-pitched songs understandable to mainland sparrows (who could presumably then flit over and add fresh new blood to the isolate population dynamics). But the sparrows proved elusive; the island often varied from description to description, and those islands matching the descriptions often contained no sparrows. Those that did typically featured thoroughly natural birdsong audible to human and bird alike.

There was a reason. The ornithologist’s piece had been a fabrication–they claimed it was a piece of fiction, though they’d had no qualms about basking in the adulation of internet denizens.

The elusive sparrows were in fact illusive sparrows, more a metaphor of the longing of human nature to fit creatures into anthropomorphic narratives than anything else.

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As discussed in the academic paper “From Concealed to Canon in 10 Years” from the monograph Neglected Voices (Southern Michigan University Press, 2011), the meteoric rise of the author Sarah Lincoln Camden among literary critics is in many ways unprecedented. While there are many authors who were all but unknown in their own lifetimes, like Emily Dickinson, they only ascended to their favored place in the literary canon–those works considered essential to a literary education–after decades of study and a gradual increase in popularity.

In contrast, Camden’s nonfiction writings and short stories were appearing in college curricula and reading lists less than five years later. “As far as I’m concerned, Camden is canonical already,” was the riposte of a famous literary critic when asked about it. “I don’t know of a single 19th-century American literature course that isn’t using at least one of her writings, and it’s on every comprehensive exam reading list that our department has prepared since 2007.

Naturally, part of that appeal comes from her life story. Born ca. 1888, the illegitimate daughter of a New York businessman and his African-American maid, Camden represents an intersection of racial and class issues that have long fascinated academics and students of history. Her education–according to her writing, provided for by her otherwise absent father–lends a probing, progressive, and intelligent angle to the writing that is often absent from contemporary perspectives regardless of race, class, or sex.

But far beyond that, the nature of Camden’s journals, stories, and other manuscript fragments are notable for the absorbing quality of their prose. “I was sucked in from the very first,” said academic Dr. Chris Stevenson, who helped unearth the writings buried in an obscure and forgotten archive. “The stories, the essays, the journal entries…not just windows on a less equitable time, but riveting reading in their own right.”

In short, Sarah Lincoln Camden is enjoying a remarkable rise to the fame and literary prominence that eluded her in life, all the more remarkable for coming over 120 years after her death.

There’s only one problem: Sarah Lincoln Camden does not and never has existed.

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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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