The world of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, if translated into the real world, is just over 14 square miles. That’s a lot to explore. But since the game’s release in 2011, dedicated players have probably found just about every nook, cranny, and Easter egg of this massive open-world game, dissecting it like it’s a werewolf in the basement of the Silver Swords.
You might be wondering what I could possibly tell you about this game that you don’t already know, and the answer is simple. In the last nine years, instead of speaking to the Greybeards, I have collected, catalogued, organized, and read all of the in-world books, building myself a nice little library in one of my homesteads and sitting quietly by the fire while dragons ravage the world around me. When the guards occasionally ask, “”I have to wonder… what does the Dragonborn do once he’s summoned by the Greybeards?” I chuckle to myself, knowing that that guard will be long-dead by the time I ever bother to stagger up to the top of High Hrothgar.
According to Elder Scrolls fandom wiki, there are 307 “lore” books, and that doesn’t even include downloadable content, “quest” books, skill books, or the 97 personal journals you can find as well. The 300+ lore books, unlike the skill books or tomes, which grant your character abilities, are purely aesthetic, and you can play the entire game without reading any of them.
But if you’re curious and lack the attention span to commit to flipping open anything more than The Lusty Argonian Maid series, you can simply read ahead, because I’ve taken the time to read all of the books and tell you which ones are worth your time.
TOP TEN BOOKS IN SKYRIM
TITLE: Purloined Shadows
LOCATION: This book can be found in Nightingale Hall once the Thieves’ Guild questline is completed, or, more easily, on the floor of Honorhall Orphanage in Riften.
CONTENTS: A young girl seeks out one of the world’s best thieves and demands to be made his pupil. He teaches her that distraction is one of the foremost arts a thief can learn. For her final test, she is tasked with stealing the cloak of daedra Nocturnal. As she reaches for it, her master shouts, “THIEF! THIEF!” Attention is turned on her and she realizes she is being used as a distraction herself by her double-crossing master.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: There are plenty of books of clever “punchlines” (especially skill books, including the Gold Ribbon of Merit, the Black Arrow v2, and The Mirror) but this one is notable for a few reasons, including it being the origin story of how Nocturnal’s Cowl came into the world, and also a skill book that gives your character a boost in the pick-pocket skill. Also, maybe this is just me, but if you read it before the Thieves’ Guild questline, it feels like a bit of clever in-game foreshadowing regarding Mercer Frey’s trustworthiness.
TITLE: Song of the Alchemists
LOCATION: You can find it at the Bard’s College (in Solitude) or at Anise’s Cabin (west of Riverwood).
CONTENTS: This book includes an old Dunmer song and some commentary. The song is about two alchemists, one competent and one incompetant, who are tasked with making a certain potion. The incompetant one fails and his creation instead ends up making him smarter.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Aside from the witty punchline, the commentary at the end somehow makes it funnier because it’s so dry; it literally explains the joke to you, adding that the joke “appealed to the anti-intellectualism of audiences in the Interregnum period,” a subtle dig at any readers who chuckled. This is also a skill book that grants the reader a point in alchemy.
TITLE: A Game At Dinner
LOCATION: There are copies to be found upstairs at both Honningbrew Meadery and New Gnisis Cornerclub in Windhelm.
CONTENTS: In order to reveal a spy among the diplomats and ambassadors staying with him, a king invites them to a dinner. At the end, he says he has poisoned the spy and that the soup on the table has the antidote. One of the guests then leaps upon the soup, revealing that they are the spy. The poison/antidote story? A ruse to root out any traitors.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Often cited as one of the best works, personally, I think it’s a bit long to deliver the simple punchline. Nonetheless it’s a clever little trick. Written in first person, it’s a good story but with a lot of heavy backstory at the beginning, making it a longer read. But it’s worth it, because this is also an alchemy skill book.
TITLE: The Refugees
LOCATION: There aren’t many copies in Skyrim, but you can always find one in the blacksmith’s bedroom in Solitude.
CONTENTS: A group of terrified refugees hides in the basement of a smelly cellar from Camoran the Usurper. One of the fleeing refugees, a Bosmer woman, keeps saying that he’s coming (and will bring with him destruction and death). Later, it is revealed she is pregnant with Camoran’s son, and her cries were speaking not of her ex-lover, but of his son, Mankar, who grows up to found the Order of the Mystic Dawn.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: I think this book is terribly under-appreciated by most people who read the Skyrim books. It’s got great imagery. And even if you don’t know a lot about the Oblivion backstory, this book stands on its own merit with a classic bit of name confusion (not dissimilar to Palla… see #4 on this list). But if you know Oblivion lore, this work is truly fantastic, not only for its construction and descriptions, but for its world-building. It also happens to be a skill book for light armor, which is a true boon for anyone playing a sneaky archer build (and let’s face it, most of us are).
TITLE: Kolb and the Dragon
LOCATION: Here’s a book that’s easy to find, especially if you’re in Solitude. (Try the Winking Skeever, Radiant Raiment, the Blue Palace, or the Bards’ College.)
CONTENTS: Kolb and the Dragon is a 17-page “choose your own adventure” book in which you, the protagonist, are tasked with finding and slaying a dragon.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: It would be impossible not to include this book on a list of Skyrim’s Greatest Literary Hits. It’s an RPG within an RPG! I would have placed it higher, but on my first read-through, I “died” from a ghost on page 15.
TITLE: Ahzirr Traajijazeri
LOCATION: Snag a copy at the Palace of the Kings in Windhelm.
CONTENTS: Self-described as the “public manifesto” of the armed forces of the Khajit, Ahzirr Traajijazeri is a book of six Khajit tenets. The tenets are: it is good to be brave, it is necessary to run away, enjoy life, kill without qualm, give freely to the people, and take justly by force.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: I have a soft spot for the catfolk of this game and the contradictory, rascally tenets of this book (“not rules, for there is no word for “rules” in Ta’agra. Call them our “thjizzrini” – “foolish concepts””) are so mischievous that it made me smile. Sheogorath would approve.
TITLE: Palla, v1 and Palla, v2
LOCATION: You can buy both from Urag from the College of Winterhold, or find them lying around Castle Volkihar (if you have the Dawnguard DLC).
CONTENTS: The Palla books tell the story of a young man who falls madly in love with a dead woman after seeing a statue of her at a party. The statue was covered by a sheet and shows a gorgeous woman of unearthly beauty being torn asunder by a terrible monster. When he uncovers it, someone murmurs, “Palla!” Knowing nothing of the statue except its namesake, the young man (who is a mage student) dedicates himself to his studies, hoping to use an enchanted necromancy artifact to resurrect her. His obsession spirals out of control until one day, the artifact breaks. Horrified that he might have ruined his chance of resurrecting Palla, he goes to the house where the statue is and confronts the daughter to tell her everything he’s been up to, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the breaking of the artifact meant that his enchantments worked and not that he’s doomed her to eternal death. The horrified daughter, hearing everything, reveals a terrible truth: “Palla” was the name of the monster, not the woman, and the hapless mage has resurrected it.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Palla has a smooth flow and a perfect build-up that never staggers or drags. I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) to make a Skyrim books listicle, and the Palla story tends to make these lists. In Oblivion, Palla v1 was a skill book. Neither book is a skill book in Skyrim, but it still makes nearly every person’s Top 5, which should tell you just how well it’s written. The pacing of it is impeccable and probably the best you’ll find in the Skyrim library.
LOCATION: You can find it in the Temple of Kynareth in Whiterun.
CONTENTS: Zaki believes he is cursed to have conversations in alphabetical order. He undergoes an experimental treatment to free him of the curse and is relieved to discover the curse lifted. However, when he goes to pay the mage Octoplasm, the mage refuses by saying, “Are treatment radical such of effects term long the what sure be can’t we, naturally. Charge no.”
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: The dialogue in this book is, in fact, alphabetized. Yet it flows relatively naturally. This leaves the reader wondering if the curse is real, or if it’s all in Zaki’s head. Is his true curse the noticing of such a seemingly benign, minor detail? Or his compulsion to adhere to the alphabetical dialogue? Or is it a real curse? And his “cure” of hearing everything backwards… is that something he’ll come to regret, or does he truly prefer that to the comparatively benign alphabetical-ness of his previous conversations? We may never know. It’s a fun set-up that undoubtedly took a bit of clever writing from the real-life authors. And to ensure you gave this work a good, long look, they threw in an additional bonus: this book confers a skill point in restoration.
TITLE: The Exodus
LOCATION: You can find it at Hob’s Fall Cave (between Dawnstar and Winterhold) or at Stendarr’s Beacon (east of Riften).
CONTENTS: This is the story of a family who seeks out mages to cure their sick daughter. Many colleges have tried, and failed, to cure their ailing child. Desperate, they seek out a fringe group, which turn out to be necromancers. They allow the child to expire and then grant the parents their wish of “curing” their daughter at the terrible cost of turning her into a lich that ages but can never die.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: I’m a sucker for monkey paw stories. This one is worth reading twice because it has a very subtle kind of horror. One of the characters, an old man, is revealed to be the six-year-old son of one of the necromancers. His dialogue is childish, and everyone in the story treats him as a child. The implication is that the mind doesn’t age, while the body gets increasingly withered and decayed. The “reveal” is horrible enough but, on a second read, the psychological implications of the terrible curse these desperate parents put upon their daughter is absolutely hellish. Also, despite this being a horror story involving necromancy, this book confers a point in restoration skill.
TITLE: Breathing Water
LOCATION: The best place to get this book is in Kraldar the Jarl’s house in Winterhold.
CONTENTS: The premise is that a young boy learns a water-breathing spell and uses it for increasing periods of time to dive into a wreck. He discovers a valuable chest that a sailor in the wreck drowned trying to get to. Assuming it to be something valuable, he goes to great lengths to unlock the chest, and discovers only two bottles in it. He ends up drowning trying to get open the chest… without realizing that the bottles contained water-breathing potion all along.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: It has a simple premise with a basic punchline, but I like it more than A Game At Dinner, perhaps because it has more dialogue and richer imagery. This book has a spooky and ironic punchline that really hit me hard, more so than any of the others. I don’t know why, but it did, and I’m forced to conclude it’s because of the set-up. Like many of the other “punchline” books, this one confers a skill point – this time, in the magic school of alteration.
TOP FIVE JOURNALS IN SKYRIM
TITLE: Alchemist’s Journal
LOCATION: Lying in plain sight in the Alchemist’s Shack south of Ivarstead.
CONTENTS: A very brief little personal log from an alchemist about how they have moved their work to this lonely little shack. “On a personal note, I have moved my alchemy work outside the shack. I find the midday air is a boon to my health, as well as inspirational to my work.”
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: This journal is just plain cute. Note that the alchemist himself can be found dead in a nearby glen, presumably killed off by Spriggans. This is one of many examples of journals that add to the general world-building. Other examples include the journal in Meeko’s Shack, detailing the last moments of Meeko the dog’s owner as he dies of rockjoint, and Karan’s Journal (on a corpse along a path in The Reach), explaining how she and her lover are ambushed by bandits while trying to elope. These are all examples of telling us how/why NPC corpses are there and creating a more realistic world. Ultimately, the journals themselves are totally unnecessary for the game. But the idea of an alchemist hermit keeping a diary felt very real to me. And, admittedly, this journal is one that has sentimental value, since the Alchemist Shack in-game can act as a fantastic free home for the Dragonborn (and also comes with a unique item: a living Butterfly in a Jar). It’s one of my favorite locations in the game.
TITLE: Hamelyn’s Journal
LOCATION: You can’t miss it; it’s in the cellar of Honningbrew Meadery and you’ll find it during the Thieves’ Guild questline.
CONTENTS: The personal accounts of Hamelyn the mage reveal a deeply unhappy and isolated man, who ran off from Whiterun due to perceived bullying and has set up an illicit laboratory in the basement of Honningbrew Meadery. He is actively involved with the thriving rat colony. His journal contains this wonderful line: “Could a psychopath create a mighty army from the common skeever?”
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: His presence in the basement makes little sense without his journal, which reveals both why there’s a homicidal mage in the basement for your character to fight, as well as why the rat (skeever) colony has proven so damned hard to eliminate.
TITLE: Arondil’s Journal (Part 3).
AUTHOR: Arondil, of course
LOCATION: There are four volumes of Arondil’s journals scattered throughout Yngvild, just outside of Dawnstar, designed to be discovered in sequential order.
CONTENTS: Simply put, these are the journals of an incel. There’s a typo in part 4 (“who’s” instead of “whose”) and some delightfully creepy lines implying possible necrophilia. In volume 2 he mentions he digs up and reanimated draugr servants, “all female.” In part 3 he is confronted by a woman he is stalking, whom he kills. “Her body is here next to me, as I write this. Funny. Her eyes are still so full of life. Perhaps I will try a new experiment tonight, using fresher materials.”
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Arondil is the ice mage of Yngvild and his journals make him out to be the perfect Big Bad. By the time you confront him you are ready to kill him; he’s a despicable character and the four short journals do a great job of painting him in a very unflattering light. These journals are also, curiously, the subject of a quest; Vekel the Man, the bartender of the Ragged Flagon in Riften, asks the Dragonborn to retrieve these diaries for a client who is interested in the writings of a madman. Note that there’s a Stone of Barenziah in the Yngvild Throne Room, making the acquisition of these journals well-worth the endeavor.
TITLE: Butcher Journal 1, 2, & 3
AUTHOR: Calixto Corrium
LOCATION: Part 2 is in Hjerim Hall in Windhelm, while Part 3 is in Calixto’s House of Curiosities. Don’t worry, you’ll come across them during the “Beware the Butcher” questline.
CONTENTS: Part 1 is generic creepy rantings from a serial killer, but part 2 is far more interesting. It contains a list of “parts” the Butcher is trying to get, plus a strange T.S. Elliot-esque poem: “star-scrying to the edge of the / ice-mind / look to the lights where the / souls dance.” It would be easy to end the Butcher saga here but Part 3 gives up a very tragic motive. In Calixto’s house, the third volume is written as a letter to his dead sister, Lucilla, whom he is trying to “rebuild.” Surprisingly lucid and heartfelt, Vol. 3 states, “I hope to soon bring your spirit back into my world, for it was you who loved this world so much, not I. I continue to collect your new form from the ragged bits around Windhelm.” It’s signed “Love, Calixto.”
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Compared to Arondil’s journals, Calixto’s give us an insight into madness that’s tempered with a very sympathetic motive. Calixto is a tragic character you’re eventually forced to kill, but his journals reveal a man who is both brilliant and very depressed. It’s refreshing to see some familial love (as opposed to romantic) and also for a bit of nuance. These journals have probably the widest range of believable emotion in the shortest amount of reading.
TITLE: Endrast’s Journal; J’zhar’s Journal; Sulla’s Journal; Umana’s Journal; Expedition Manifest
AUTHOR: Endrast, J’zhar, Sulla, and Umana
LOCATION: All of the Altfand journals are readily found in the Altfand ruins, southwest of Winterhold, during the “Elder Knowledge” question.
CONTENTS: There are a total of 6 journals in Altfand if you include the Research Notes. Endrast’s ends with a very human confession: “Yag and I tried for the top of the cave shaft, but one of the ramps was broken. Without a hesitation, she grabbed me by the scruff of my tunic, threw me atop the ledge and told me to run. And I did. I didn’t even look back. I just ran like a coward.” Umana’s journal mentions that Yag stands up for the two Khajit brothers following the disappearance of various members of their party. And one of the Khajit brother’s journals gives some tragic insight to their backstory: J’zhar’s journal states that he “signed J’darr and myself up for this expedition to try to get him clean of the Skooma.” This is even sadder in context; as you enter the glacial crevice that goes into Alftand, you will hear J’darr arguing with his brother. When you encounter him, you discover he is the only one left of the expedition and was arguing with J’zhar’s lifeless body lying in its bedroll with the journal beside it. Whether J’darr is crazy from withdrawal, isolation, or trauma is unclear, but to continue through the ruins, you must kill him, and it’s only after putting him out of his misery that you can carry on.
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: If you explore Alftand completely, you will find all members of the doomed expedition scattered around, and each death tells a story. I really liked the quest, which has the Dragonborn going through this enormous Dwemer ruin on a morbid Easter egg hunt to find all of the members of the expedition. I’m not normally a fan of dungeon crawls, but this one was very enjoyable because of the inclusion of the six NPC corpses and their journals. It made an otherwise tedious dungeon crawl memorable.
HONORABLE MENTIONS AND LITERARY TRIVIA
In no particular order, here are a few other observations about Skyrim’s books that you might not have noticed:
- Suvaris Atheron’s Logbook, found in the Clan Shatter-Shield Office in Windhelm, is the most journal-like journal in all of Skyrim. It begins with the very on-point title page: “PRIVATE PROPERTY OF SUVARIS ATHERON – PLEASE RETURN TO HIM IN WINDHELM IF FOUND.” It’s worth nothing that Suvaris is actually a woman, so this is a fun little error. Additionally delightful is that each entry includes a food log: “Moderate lunch and dinner. Light lunch, no dinner. Heavy lunch and dinner.”
- Eisa’s journal, in Frostmere Cavern (south of Mzinchaleft and site of the “Pale Lady” quest) includes this tidbit: “I’ve taken charge of the dig, while Ra’jirr is leading the raids topside. Maybe that year in Cidhna Mine will pay off after all.” I thought no one escapes Cidhna Mine…?
- Gallus’s Encoded Journal, which you will obtain as part of the thieves’ guild questline, is written in “Falmer language.” This is confusing because the Falmer are blind. I think it means Snow Elf language (which is the race that preceded the Falmer) but these are definitely distinct races, so it’s strange that the encoding is called “Falmer” as opposed to “ancient snow elf.” Also, Snow Elf shorthand is a simple letter substitution code and, if you have the patience, you can work it out. (This is totally unnecessary, since the quest gives you a translated version of the Gallus journal at a later plot point.)
- If Thonar of Markarth dies, you can obtain his journal by visiting him in the Hall of the Dead in Markarth. He’s buried with it, a small designer decision I found touching. This is part of the Forsworn Conspiracy quest, and while the contents of the journal itself doesn’t add much, I think its location on its in-game author (living or dead) is a great touch.
- “A Minor Maze” (which can be found in the Winking Skeever and the Bards’ College of Solitude) has a decorative maze on its title page. Alas, the maze cannot actually be solved.
- “Death of a Wanderer” explains why dragon claw locks have the lock combos on them. Simply put, it’s to ensure that the person using them is a person and has a “functioning mind.” It’s not to keep people out… but to keep draugr in. This is a great in-world explanation for what otherwise would have felt like a plot hole in the game (or at least a very over-simplified puzzle).
- The Keepers of the Razor is a book you can find in Dawnstar during the Pieces of the Past quest and it holds the record for the book with the most typos. (Unless you include “Alduin Is Real,” which is purposefully written by a semi-illiterate in-game author.) There are five typos scattered amongst its twelve pages, including the spelling “BACKGROND” and total elimination of the Keepers of the Razor’s name in one sentence: “Originally a militia group founded to destroy the remnants of the Mythic Dawn, the group was renamed the after discovering the legendary artifact.”
- Ulfr’s Book is completely blank. This is baffling, up until you venture deeper into the cave and defeat the bandit leader Hajvarr, whose journal reveals that Ulfr is blind. The blind watchman reading a blank book is a fantastic little in-game joke. You can find Ulfr’s Book in White River Watch, just east of White Run. There’s a second blank book in the game: The Book of Fate, located at Calixto’s House of Curiosities in Windhelm.
- N’Gasta!_Kvata!_Kvakis! is written in coded Esperanto.
- Advances in Lockpicking begins by informing you that it is written by a thief, not a writer, who is good at lockpicking but not very good at writing. The book is written in very simple, childish language, and ends with some very practical advice: “Some thieves can’t read. If you can’t read, get someone to read this book to you. It will make more sense then.” This lockpicking skill book is most easily found in the Cistern of the Ragged Flagon in Riften.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SKYRIM’S EXTENSIVE LIBRARY
If you enjoyed this little trip through my own personal version of Apocrypha, then allow me to make some final suggestions.
First, I love all tales of Sheogorath, the daedric prince of madness. My favorite story about him goes to “Sixteen Accords of Madness, Book VI,” in which he defeats a great beast of Hircine’s with a tiny songbird. This book can be purchased at the library in the College of Winterhold. Another volume of Sheogorath tales, “Myths of Sheogorath,” gives you three Sheogorath stories for the price of one; you can find it in the Temple of the Divines or the Bards’ College of Solitude.
It pained me to remove this book from my Top Ten list, but “Mannimarco, King of the Worms” is worth a look-see if you’ve got the time. This alchemy skill book that describes the creation of the world’s first lich. Written as an epic poem in fanciful language, it’s a pretty good read. One of the few poems I actually liked in game.
I definitely have a personal preference for the folklore of the game, at the expense of the more heavy fantasy-history. A few other books of note include “Of Fjori and Holgeir” (which is probably the best love book; it’s basically Romeo and Juliet); “ Immortal Blood” (your in-world Interview with the Vampire); and of course, “The Sultry Argonian Bard, v1,” which you can find in Haelga’s Bunkhouse in Riften if you have Dawnguard DLC. If you like histories and don’t mind seeking out volumes, then “The Real Barenziah” (five volumes) and “The Wolf Queen” (eight volumes) are worth the adventure.
You might as well. Hermaeus Mora would want you to! And it’s not like the Greybeards can’t wait another year or two…