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Books Within Books

All books are in some way about other books

How do you decide what to read? Maybe someone recommends something to you, be it in person or on the internet. Maybe you get prompted by an advertisement or encounter an interesting book while browsing through shelves in a store. Sometimes though, an author recommends you a book through their own work. For me, this time it was Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently obtained a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five which I found such pleasure in that I read through it in one sitting. While doing so, I came upon these lines:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Intrigued by this, I set out to buy The Brothers Karamazov. In there, various other books are mentioned such as Schiller's Robbers, Gogol's Dead Souls or Shakespeare's Hamlet. Some of these books, plays and poems naturally reference other pieces of literature which led me down a path following all those references. Ignoring any ideological lineages that could be pursued from Dostoevsky's work (which should be, and probably is, at least another whole book), here is a more or less complete reference genealogy of The Brothers Karamazov, at least for those books where I could find the original texts online without trouble:

Since then, I’ve also encountered a meta-mention of this phenomenon in the book A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (which, to my luck, was recommended to me). There the author let’s his Martin Dean say:

“If you read Dostoyevsky, he mentions Pushkin, and so you go and read Pushkin and he mentions Dante, and so you go and read Dante […]. All books are in some way about other books.”

Of course, in order to derive further conclusions from books alluded to in other books, every reference would need to be read and analyzed within its respective context in relation to the text as well as to the author's life and circumstances at the point of writing. Without this, it is merely a record of other people's actual work within a piece of fiction.

That is, however, exactly the reason why I like looking out for those mentions so much: it shows that the authors were also consumers of other people's creations, it gives us a glimpse into what they may have liked or disliked and what may have inspired them. It also shows that no one creation is really able to stand on its own, there is always a larger context.