Book learning

The Madman’s Library

The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History

Edward Brooke-Hitching, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 255 pages, £25

Books are, Edward Brooke-Hitching notes, ‘the emblem of civilization.’  The earliest books were used to establish and uphold authority – administrative, legal and taxation powers, dynastic legitimacy, moral, political and religious order. Great libraries have frequently been aids to social stability – arsenals of arguments lined up along institutional shelving, categorised and chosen as much to wall out the world as to comprehend it. But if there has always been dry and pedantic ‘book learning’, thankfully there has also always been ‘bibliomania’ – untrammelled authors who rejected all constraints of sense and taste, and books that even now burst brilliantly out of their bindings, to assume enlightening and fantastical shapes.

The cover of The Madman’s Library, a 1790 aquatint by the caricaturist James Gillray, depicts a grave gentleman at a desk strewn with practical plans, while all around is pandemonium – capering cherubim, corpses, demons, explosions, flying papers, midgets, monuments, odd animals, and smoke – symbols of mental and physical disorder behind a dignified and rational facade. It illustrates the inherent anarchy of books – an idea famously treated by Swift in his 1704 ‘Battle of the Books’, in which the Ancient and Modern volumes in a prestigious collection vie violently for shelf-space. As Jorge Luis Borges’ narrator reflected ruefully of his infinite ‘Library of Babel, ’ ‘For one reasonable line or one straightforward note there are leagues of insensate cacophony, of verbal farragoes, and incoherencies. ’

Edward Brooke-Hitching, who has previously published on outré geography, celestial mythology, and forgotten sports, is even more interested in literature’s oddest outcroppings – the world’s most crazed, gruesome, incomprehensible, monomaniacal, oddly made, strangely titled, and even toxic works, spanning millennia. This is a highly-polished treatment of an ineffably interesting subject, well-informed and witty, almost too wide-ranging and copiously illustrated. There are countless books on literary curiosities, and some of the books described are already well-known, but even the most ardent bibliophiles are likely to find new and beguiling examples of bookish bizarrerie.

He opens with books that aren’t books – either volumes that no longer exist, like the bejewelled Rubaiyat made for the wealthy American Harry Elkins Widener, who packed it into his trunk before loading it and himself onto the Titanic – or books that were never books in today’s conventional sense. These include Roman ‘curse tablets’, Chinese oracle bones, Aboriginal message-sticks, Tibetan prayer-wheels, Aramaic ‘devil-trap bowls’ (bowls painted with text corkscrewing inwards to draw demons into captivity), the Incas’ quipu accounting system of knotted strings, a US Civil War log written on a violin, a German psychotic’s testament inked onto her jacket, children’s letter-books incised on horn, ‘xylothek’ books about species of trees made solely from the wood of that species.

Then there are manuscripts that have been radically repurposed, as mummy wrappings, mitre-stiffeners, dresses for religious icons, or in the bodywork of a 1925 type 40 Bugatti. There are pistols and poison caches secreted inside books, a metal manual devised as a weapon by extremist ‘68ers, and, more socially beneficial, a commode toilet in the form of a book winningly entitled A History of the Low Countries.

He moves on to books bound by, fashioned from, or written in unusual (if often appropriate) materials – Paradise Lost in snakeskin, Gone With the Wind in a Confederate flag, bird books with illustrations made from feathers, and rabbit pelt (on a book about a celebrated 18th century Englishwoman who claimed to have given birth to rabbits). Probably the most piquant pages are those held inside human hide, a practice anciently established, but invariably surrounded by skin-crawling mystique. Jacobins were rumoured to have run a secret tannery to process the epidermises of aristocrats, and copies of the French Constitution were bound in the skins of diehard democrats. The body of the notorious Edinburgh bodysnatcher William Burke (partner of William Hare) was dissected publicly after his hanging, blood from his head was used as ink, and some of his skin ultimately used to make a pocket book. Boston’s Athenaeum holds the confession of the 19th century Massachusetts highwayman James Allen, held together by Allen’s skin, and stamped in gold. The pioneering French writer Camille Flammarion had a skin bequeathed him by its erstwhile occupant, and used it to bind a copy of his 1877 sci-fi novel Les terres du ciel. The present Iraqi government is the uneasy custodian of Saddam Hussein’s ‘Blood Qur’an’, allegedly written over two years using 50-57 pints of the dictator’s blood.

Then there are cryptic books – messages in invisible ink or hidden inside eggs, books in codes that are even now unbroken, astrological and occultist manuscripts, riddle guides to alleged buried treasure, and books designed to deceive. Literary hoaxes go back at least as far as the Stoics, and carry on via 1st century fake snake cults, the faux-‘Formosan’ who took in 18th century London, Audubon inventing American fish species for fun, and the 1943 ‘Ern Malley’ poems which humiliated Australia’s Modernist set, to nonsensical articles published by serious scientific journals bedazzled by meaningless terminology.

There are books which are delightfully mistaken – medieval bestiaries, a ‘scientific’ 1719 compendium of Indonesia’s psychedelic crustacea, walking fish and mermaids, and Pedro Carolino’s justly renowned Portuguese-English phrase book of 1855, English As She is Spoke (entries include ‘At which is your hat?’ and ‘Take care to dirt you self’). There are obsessive catalogues, now irreplaceable treasures, like Columbus’s son’s Libro de los Epitomes, a list of all the world’s known books, many of which have subsequently vanished forever. Less elevated, but also evocative and valuable in their way, are the anonymous Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar for 1773, which details the attributes and specialties of Covent Garden’s prostitutes, and irate American physicist Harvey Einbinder ’s 390-page pamphlet of 1964 detailing errata in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

There are medieval missals with comical marginalia, a 14th century lawsuit taken out by the Devil, Jesus’s Last Will and Testament (found, rather unexpectedly, in Japan), books of dubious cures (eating rotten mice to prevent bed-wetting), manuals of magical spells, chronicles of miracles, accounts of sky-pirates, dictionaries of thieves’ slang, detailed descriptions of Martian manners, and Victorian wallpaper sample books drenched in gorgeous green arsenic.

Title page of Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher

Two books of 1665 show the breadth of bookish achievement – Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus, which mapped Atlantis, discussed cave-dwelling societies and the dragons that probably lived at Earth’s molten core – and Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia, which literally changed the way we see the world, with its still magnificent drawings of the animalcules and everyday items he had seen through his shiny new microscope.

The author inevitably focuses on the delightfully mistaken, rather than the brilliantly insightful – the Londoner who believed that William Pitt was unknowingly controlled by a gigantic ‘Air Loom’ machine, the respected zoologist who believed God had given Adam a belly-button and planted fossils to test our faith, the CIA interrogator who subjected houseplants to lie-detector tests, and – a particular favourite of the author’s – American lawyer Pat Kelly’s 1977 masterpiece of disembodied intellect, If We Can Keep a Severed Head Alive…

He continues his survey of this infinitely expandable subject by giving examples of outsized and undersized books. Book dealers call miniature volumes Lilliputiana – like the 1878 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 500-page book just 1¾ inches high, in a blindness-inducing typeface called “fly’s eye” – and giant volumes Brobdingnagiana – like the Yongle Encyclopedia commissioned by the Ming Emperor Zhu Di in 1403, which was 11,095 volumes long when work stopped in 1408, and remained the longest text ever written until overtaken by Wikipedia in 2007.

He concludes with strange titles, a tiny but representative selection plucked from the lavishness of literature – from the 10th century text, In Praise of Bald Men by way of 1783’s The Adventures of an Irish Smock, Interspersed with Whimsical Anecdotes Of A Nankeen Pair of Breeches, to modern masterpieces of doubtful taste, like James A. Yannes’ indispensable 2009 reference work, Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich. Probably, many of these books are – to borrow the title of Sir George Compton Archibald Arthur’s 1914 book – Not Worth Reading, but what bibliophile wouldn’t want to have such masterpieces ranged along his shelf?

Last of all comes a sheet of punctuation marks, issued angrily in 1805 by the accidentally successful American entrepreneur, Timothy Dexter. It accompanied the second edition of his anti-elitist diatribe, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, telling the many who had complained about the first edition’s lack of punctuation that they could do that job for themselves. His pawky pride, his aggrieved defiance, so woefully misplaced, and inadvertently entertaining, makes this a perfect ‘colophon’ to this collection, an emblem of our endless eccentricity and impatience with order, and the liberating nature of literature.

This review first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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