The best novels that use a book-within-a-book format

Who am I?

I love books. I studied them at school, sold them in a store, and now I write them. Books about books are a favorite genre of mine because they explore the power of story-telling and the sharing of ideas. Indeed, from the King James Bible to Kapital to Fifty Shades of Grey, books shape us and the world. This fascination inspired me to write two comic novels about books, The King of Pain, which contains a book-within-in-a-book, and most recently, The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire, a satirical romance inspired by Don Quixote.  

I wrote...

The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire

By Seth Kaufman,

Book cover of The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire

What is my book about?

The Seductive Lady Vanessa of Manhattanshire spins three tales. Maxine More, a romance novel–obsessed New York school teacher who envisions herself as a Georgian Lady and sees the world entirely through the prism of her beloved books. Designating her teenage house cleaner Magdalena Cruz as her lady-in-waiting, Lady Vee goes looking for love in all the wrong places. Her misadventures, however, are interrupted by two other women — Oona Noor, the novel’s translator, and Aisha Benengeli, the fictional author of Lady Vee, who shares her own romantic troubles. As the author struggles to find happiness for her crazed character and herself, the translator searches for the elusive writer — each hoping for a happy-ever-after.

The books I picked & why

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The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha

By Miguel De Cervantes, John Ormsby (translator),

Book cover of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha

Why this book?

The 400+ year-old urtext of metafiction, Cervantes’ masterpiece is directly responsible for my own novel. But its influence on literature is incalculable. The story of a man driven mad by the spellbinding power of romantic books about knights and the women they serve, Don Quixote is more than just a comedy. While serving up one misadventure after another, Cervantes pokes fun at books about chivalry, poetry, authorial ego, and the very process of writing a book. Subjects that still consume us today, from book burning to censorship to plagiarism, also get their time in the spotlight. One note of caution: many readers find Don Quixote too long. Open it up and start reading anywhere, it is a bible of another sort.  

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Why this book?

Harry Potter aside, I’m not a huge fantasy fan. Jonathan Strange, however, with its dazzling writing and mysterious historical novel feel, knocked me out. Clarke drives her tale about two men who return the vanished practice of magic to 19th century England with an endless stream of citations, often delightfully lengthy footnotes, about the books that contain spells and potions. In doing so, she constructs an imaginary library of magic books. 


By Percival L. Everett,

Book cover of Erasure

Why this book?

Erasure’s book within a book set up targets publishing, contemporary society, and, without mentioning her name, Oprah Winfrey. The plot is terrific. An African American author who is told his work isn't “Black enough” knocks out a satirical retelling of Richard Wright’s Native Son under a pseudonym. The book “My Pafology” — which he retitles “Fuck” —  is boosted by a TV personality and becomes a huge hit, its satirical elements lost on the world. Hilarity ensues. The novel echoes literary scams like James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, but Everett, an under-recognized genius, roasts everyone. 

Pale Fire

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Pale Fire

Why this book?

Nabokov’s novel is not about a book per se, and it is definitely not your typical novel, either. A 999-line poem by fictional author John Shade provides the lift-off here. But the bulk of Pale Fire is a series of footnotes by Shade’s neighbor, professor Charles Kinbote, an academic buffoon, who, while supposedly annotating the poem, unfolds three bizarre storylines and exposes himself as a deranged egotistical madman (sorry if that’s redundant!). The result is a metafictional wonder that explodes the parameters of the “traditional” novel and takes a giant satirical pot-shot at academics.

Fahrenheit 451

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of Fahrenheit 451

Why this book?

Written in 1953, this dystopian novel is as relevant as ever. It images a world without books of any kind, where firemen don’t put out blazes, they ignite them — destroying books and the homes of people who own them. Bradbury wrote this long before digital technology capable of monitoring our behavior was in place. His nightmarish novel is a gripping cautionary tale about censorship, totalitarian control, and the importance of freedom of speech. 

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