I’ve always loved books about books. As someone with a bit of an eclectic taste in books, who’s more likely to pick up a book from a shelf if it has a weird title, this is basically my idea of the perfect coffee table book.
There are so many fun facts and strange bits and pieces I want to remember about this book. So rather than writing a normal review, I’m going to share some of the oddities and curiosities that stood out to me in each chapter.
Books that aren’t books
- Oracle bones – “animal bones and shells, often from oxen and turtles, upon which questions were written and anointed with blood by fortune-tellers. A heated poker was then pressed against the bone until it cracked, and in these patterns of splits and marks the client’s future was divined.”
- Quipu – “As far as we can tell, the primary function of these knotted strings, which could consist of anything from four cords to more than 2000, was storing and communicating numerical information in a decimal system used for documenting census and calendrical data, tax obligations, and managing accounts and trades.”
- Francesco Morosini’s custom-made Italian prayer-book pistol. “The gun, likely for personal protection, can only fire when the book is closed. The trigger is a pin concealed in silk thread to look like a bookmark.”
- A secret poison cabinet disguised as a book, made in 1692. Sold at auction in 2008, you can find the details here.
Books made of flesh and blood
- The practice of binding books with human skin is called ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’.
- Chief surgeon of the British Royal Infirmary, Richard Smith, bound a book of papers relating to the murder of Eliza Balsom in the skin of the murderer. Never mind that John Horwood, the convicted murderer, threw a pebble at her temple and it was likely Smith’s “trepanation, an ancient practice that involved drilling a hole into the skull to relieve pressure” that killed her.
- A practice known as xieshu in Chinese Buddhism, where scribes wrote holy text using their blood, was considered “an ascetic form of sacrifice to prove one’s piety and earn merit to be transferred to one’s relatives after death.” The lighter the blood’s colour was, the more pure the writer was deemed to be.
- In order to pass on messages to his friends who were imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, Giambattista della Porta wrote secret messages on eggs. “He concocted an ink from one ounce of alum (a colourless compound using in dying and tanning) and a pint of vinegar. Written directly onto the shell, the chemical mixture soaked through the porous shell to the egg albumen beneath. Boiling the egg caused the chemical to react, and when the shell was peeled away the message was revealed on the hardened egg white.”
- George Shepard Chappell’s exotic travel journal hoax, The Cruise of the Kawa: Wanderings in the South Seas by ‘Walter E. Traprock’, included a photo of the eggs of the native Fatu-liva bird.
- Pedro Carolino’s The New Guide to Conversation in Portuguese and English was published in 1855. The problem was that Pedro didn’t know how to speak English so he used a Portuguese-to-French phrasebook and then a French-to-English dictionary. Obviously this led to some interesting phrases. My favourite of those listed is ‘You make grins’.
- The first commercially produced typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, was invented in Denmark in 1865. “The distinctive design features fifty-two keys on a large brass hemisphere, with the vowels to the left and consonants to the right.”
Works of the supernatural
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead was originally called ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’.
- The earliest record of crop circles is from a pamphlet published in 1678, ‘The Mowing-Devil: Or, Strange News out of Hartford-Shire’.
- In the mid 1600’s, a Sephardic ordained rabbi called Sabbatai Zevi married the Torah. There was even a wedding ceremony, although the rabbis of Salonica then banished the groom from the city. Zevi also claimed to be able to fly but refused to do so in public because apparently his followers “weren’t worthy of witnessing it”.
Curiosities of science
- Galen, a Greek physician (AD C. 129-216), believed hair was made when the “skin’s pores became blocked with sooty smoke particles generated by warm blood, until so much pressure built up that the soot erupted out of the skin in a solid string”. Darker hair indicates a higher soot level and higher temperature.
Books of spectacular size
- Miniature books are called ‘Lilliputiana’ and huge books are called ‘Brobdingnagiana’.
- “Bill Hillman, the American author of the 2014 guide Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, was gored by the bulls of Pamplona that same year – and again the next year.”
- A literary award called the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year began in 1978.
Once Upon a Blurb
From the author of the critically acclaimed bestsellers The Phantom Atlas and The Sky Atlas comes a unique and beautifully illustrated journey through the history of literature. The Madman’s Library delves into its darkest territories to hunt down the oddest books and manuscripts ever written, uncovering the intriguing stories behind their creation.
From the Qur’an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein, to the gorgeously decorated fifteenth-century lawsuit filed by the Devil against Jesus, to the most enormous book ever created, The Madman’s Library features many long forgotten, eccentric, and extraordinary volumes gathered from around the world.
Books written in blood and books that kill, books of the insane and books that hoaxed the globe, books invisible to the naked eye and books so long they could destroy the Universe, books worn into battle and books of code and cypher whose secrets remain undiscovered. Spell books, alchemist scrolls, wearable books, edible books, books to summon demons, books written by ghosts, and more all come together in the most curiously strange library imaginable.
Featuring hundreds of remarkable images and packed with entertaining facts and stories to discover, The Madman’s Library is a captivating compendium perfect for bibliophiles, literature enthusiasts, and collectors intrigued by bizarre oddities, obscure history, and the macabre.