11 Books Within Books That Will Definitely Stretch Your Imagination

Helen Rushbrook/Stocksy

You know that feeling, when you're sitting there reading a book, and you're thinking, "Gee, this book sure is great, but I wish that I could be reading another book as well, while still somehow reading this first book at the very same time?" Well, now you can! I mean, it may not work exactly like that. But there are a surprising number of books out there that are secretly two books in one. Or three books in one, or even seven books in one. These books within books stretch narrative conventions for a mind-bending read. So if you're looking to read two books at once (or, at least, get as close as you possibly can without losing your mind), here are a few great books to start with.

Some of these books include entire chapters from "other" books, except that those "other" books don't exist anywhere but within the confines of the original book itself. Others might have a more conventional framing device for a story within a story, or a character who "jumps" from their own reality into another, fictional reality. All of them will force you to question where one narrative stops and another one starts, and what really makes a book a book:

'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin has at least three books going on at once. There's the story of Iris' life, as she recounts her autobiography to the reader. Then there's the romance novel written by Iris' sister, which pops up within the story of Iris' life. Then there's the science fiction story within the romance novel, which is being written by one of the characters. Altogether its a dazzling, multi-layered mystery novel that keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

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'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas starts off with a seafaring story set in 1850, which abruptly ends about halfway through. Then it moves on to the tale of a disinherited bisexual composer in 1931, which also ends suddenly in the middle. Then we have a thrilling story about a reporter set in the 70's, and so and and so forth until you realize that all of these stories are subtly woven together, building one giant narrative that takes us from the 1800's to the far distant future and back again.

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'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

On his 11th birthday, Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where his father tells him to pick one book from the labyrinthine shelves. Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, and he loves it so much that he wants to read the rest of Carax's work. But someone has been destroying every copy of every book by Julian Carax, and Daniel is soon sucked into a literary mystery that blurs the line between fact and fiction.

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'Autoboyography' by Christina Lauren

Anyone who's ever attempted NaNoWriMo or the like will deeply identify with Tanner, who decides that writing a book in four months sounds totally doable. Four months is a long time, right? It turns out that the whole book-writing thing is a lot harder than Tanner imagined, but four months is plenty of time to get to know Sebastian Brother, a Mormon writing prodigy and quite possibly the love of Tanner's life.

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'Fangirl' by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl is a coming of age novel that doubles as an ode to fandom and fanfiction—specifically, fanfiction for Simon Snow, a suspiciously familiar fictional boy wizard. The main story follows Cath, the ultimate Simon Snow fan, as she tries to navigate collegiate life beyond her beloved online forums and fanfiction sites, where she's a huge star. But, of course, Fangirl also includes delightful excerpts from the fanfiction that Cath writes, making it a book within a book.

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'If on a winter’s night a traveler' by Italo Calvino

If on a winter's night a traveler is a trip and a half. It starts with you, the protagonist, reading If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. But something has gone wrong, and your book starts with the wrong first chapter. So now you're off on a quest: to find a finish a single book in a world where every book seems to end after chapter one.

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'Afterworlds' by Scott Westerfeld

Darcy Patel is living the dream: her YA fantasy novel is about to be published. That means that Darcy is skipping college for the glamorous world of publishing, panicked rewrites, and the somewhat terrifying experience of falling in love with a fellow writer. Meanwhile, in Darcy's novel, Lizzie has willed her way into the afterworld, and she now finds herself responsible for guiding the restless spirits who still walk the Earth.

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'Mr. Fox' by Helen Oyeyemi

St John Fox, celebrated novelist, has always been infatuated by the beautiful Mary Foxe. He's quite surprised to see her on one bright afternoon in 1938, however, because he knows he made her up. She's a character in his books. And yet Mary is here, in the real world, and she wants St John to know that his lovely fictional heroines are absolutely sick of being killed off for plot purposes. Mr. Fox isn't strictly a straightforward book within a book, but it blends together St John's novels and his actual life until the two become impossible to extricate.

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'Lost in a Good Book' by Jasper Fforde

Once you get past the first book in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, all literary hell breaks loose. Lost in a Good Book introduces us to the Book World, with Dickens' Miss Havisham as our guide to this interconnected multi-verse of books, both real and invented by Fforde. It's a wild ride starring Thursday, the world's greatest literary detective, as she tries to save the fictional and non-fictional realms of existence from the threat of unidentifiable pink sludge.

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'The Reengineers' by Indu Muralidharan

Chinmay Narayan is a loser at school, his crush doesn't know he exists, and his parents are getting a divorce. Life is not going great. But then, while perusing his uncle's library, Chinmay and his friends stumble upon a portal to another world — a strange sort of school, where Chinmany finds himself to be the protagonist in someone else's book.

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'The Habitation of the Blessed' by Catherynne M. Valente

Brother Hiob is on missionary work in the Himalayas when he comes across an impossible tree that grows books instead of fruit. And in these books, Hiob discovers the bizarre chronicle of Prester John, who led a powerful kingdom years ago. The books also tell the stories of Prester John's wife, Hagia (a headless creature who carried her face on her chest), and the otherworldly nursery tales of royal family's nanny.

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