In reading short stories by the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, I've noticed a repeated theme: many of these stories are written in the style of a review or summary of a much larger and more intricate work, which is wholly imaginary. This seems to be Borges's way of sharing all the awesomely bonkers ideas he comes out with for books, without actually having to go to the effort of writing these massive books himself.

  • The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim: a review of a 21-chapter book of the same name by the fictional Bombay attorney Mir Bahadur Ali.
  • Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote: a brief description of the complete works of the fictional novelist Pierre Menard, followed by a more detailed study of his attempt to rewrite Don Quixote.
  • A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain: a brief description of the complete works of the fictional Irish author Herbert Quain.
  • The Garden of Forking Paths: a spy story surrounds the essential philosophical issue of the eponymous work by the fictional philosopher Ts'ui Pen.

Was Borges the inventor of this curious style of storytelling? Or were there other, earlier authors who established the literary technique of creating a story idea but instead of telling it in full, only summarising it and leaving the reader tantalised?


2 Answers 2


Sartor Resartus was written in 1836. There are examples of earlier imaginaries dating back to John Donne and Rabelais. Donne's The Courtier's Library (1650), is a catalogue of 34 apocryphal works modeled after Rabelais' Library of St Victor, Pantagruel, II, vii (~1532).

Together, these two references move the origin of the OPs query back three centuries.

See The Courtier's Library on the blog John Donne Society Digital Prose Project.

  • 1
    There's also Sir Thomas Browne's Musæum Clausum, a catalogue of "supposed, rumoured or lost books, pictures, and objects". Borges may have known of Browne's museum, considering that Borges have read Browne's Urn Burial (see the ending of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 23:36

No he did not!

The process can be traced back at least to Thomas Carlyle, who in Sartor Resartus (1833–34) publishes a summary and a critique, à la Borges, of the fictional book Clothes, Their Origin and Influence.

Let's note that Thomas Carlyle pushed it even further than Borges, publishing the review in a magazine with no mention of its fictional nature! While book 1 is a comment mainly of (pseudo-)philosophical nature, the readers of Fraser's Magasine would find, in the begging of book 2, a fiction of what is deemed as a summary of Clothes, Their Origin and Influence.

Even better: he knew he did not

[I] discovered, and was overwhelmed by, Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart.

Luis Borges, Word Music and Translation, Lecture, Delivered February 28, 1968, cited in This Craft of Verse, Harvard University Press, 2000

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    Actually, Borges did push it as far as Carlyle, since "El acercamiento a Almutasim" was published in Sur without any reference or explanation as to whether that was a real review or a short-story. Therefore, and considering that Borges also used to publish actual book reviews in Sur, his friend Bioy Casares took the story for real and went as far as to order a copy of the book from his bookseller. Only when they told him they could not find the book, did he ask his friend where he got it, and he received a surprising answer. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 6:45

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