Employing their imaginations with varying degrees of credulity, authors have created a cornucopia of variations on the encyclopedia. Most command more interest for commenting on the nature of knowledge than for the actual knowledge they contain. We’ve listed 10 of the most bizarre below:
1. Encyclopedia Galactica from the works of Isaac Asimov
Nothing about Asimov lacked for scale—not the intimidating size of his muttonchops, nor the Voltairian scope of his prose, nor the thoroughness of his imagined encyclopedia. Allegedly created as a comment on the Encyclopedia Britanica, the Encyclopedia Galactica is the repository of knowledge collected by an imagined, interstellar empire. In addition to Asimov’s works, the encyclopedia appears in novels by Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke among others.
2. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño
Nazi Literature in the Americas describes the exploits of fictional South American authors of the far Right, treating each of these subjects as if he or she were an entry in a literary encyclopedia. Bolaño alternately mocks and recoils from these figures, ultimately placing himself incongruously in their midst.
3. The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges
Though hailing from one of literature’s greatest fabulists, The Book of Imaginary Beings is in fact a straightforward affair. With descriptions of magical creatures ranging from the well known (H.G. Wells’ morlocks) to the mystifyingly obscure (catoblepas?), the text impressively accounts for the imagination’s orphans.
4. The Key to All Mythologies in Middlemarch
by George Eliot
The life’s work of bloodless scholar Edward Casaubon, The Key to All Mythologies serves as one of Middlemarch’s myriad of dark tricks. Though Casaubon sedulously applies himself to creating this mythological omnibus, he lacks the vitality for self-creation that allowed his beloved mythology to exist in the first place. The Key, like Casaubon himself, is ultimately a failure in the end.
5. Vestrand’s Extelopedia in 44 Magnetomes in Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem
Lem’s metafictional conceits often reach Borgesian heights of absurdity, never more so than in Imaginary Magnitude—a collection of criticism concerning imaginary books. Verstrand’s Extelopedia figures among this number, as do a great many works on the receiving end of Lem’s satirical wit.
6. Necronomicon from the works of H.P. Lovecraft
Though he had discomforting views on race and the use of adjectives, Lovecraft possessed a witchdoctor’s talent for spinning compelling mythology. In his be-tentacled universe, the Necronomicon serves as the oft-referenced, never-revealed wellspring of all things evil and arcane.
7. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Peter Nicholls and John Clute
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction deserves plaudits for the exhausting depth of its inquiry. With entries spanning books, television, film, videogames, music and art, the encyclopedia compiles a stunning collection of whimsy and speculation. Do you know how many books French sci-fi author Fernand Kolney published in 1908? Because these guys do.
8. Natural History by Pliny the Elder
We have every reason to believe that when Pliny the Elder composed his Natural History in the first century AD, he believed all of its contents to be factual. Though time has since disproved the existence of “dog-men” and “umbrella feet,” many of his observations hold true. At present, History remains at least as fascinating for the things it got wrong as for the things it got right.
9. Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
In many ways an homage to the Voynich Manuscript below, the Codex Seraphinianus boasts outlandish artwork and indecipherable text. Serafini published the Codex in 1981 and has since remained mum as to its origins and meaning.
10. The Voynich Manuscript by ???
No one knows who wrote it, when it was written or where it came from. Carbon dating places it somewhere in the 15th century, and collectors speculate it may be of northern Italian origin. But the manuscript itself offers no clues—only illustrations of fantastical flora and fauna, indecipherable text and one of literature’s most enduring mysteries.
Top image illustrated by Sarah and inspired by The Book of Imaginary Beings by Borges.