The Madman's Library, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, is a fascinating account of some of the strangest literary curiosities from around the world

Tour through a madman's library
  • The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History, by Edward Brooke-Hitching. Simon & Schuster. $45.

Edward Brooke-Hitching is an author, map historian, award-winning documentary filmmaker and researcher for the TV'S QI. That series' quirky and informative humour resounded in Brooke-Hitching's first book, Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports.

Edward's father, renowned antiquarian bookseller Franklin Brooke-Hitching, often collected strange titles, such as Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque and Through Persia By Caravan. It comes as no surprise therefore that Edward, growing up in a rare bookshop, has always been "really fascinated by books that are down the back alleys of history".

Brooke-Hitching thus asks in his preface to The Madman's Library, "Which books would inhabit the shelves of the greatest library of literary curiosities, put together by a collector unhindered by space, time and budget?"

The result is a beautifully produced volume, with hundreds of colour illustrations, documenting the strangest and most extraordinary books from around the world and historical periods. Each book "redefines, in its own way, the concept of just what a book can be".

The 10 chapters include ones devoted to literary hoaxes, religious oddities, curiosities of science and works of the supernatural. Brooke-Hitching reflects that, "above everything, people have always been funny, been weird, been unquenchably curious in every possible arena ... It can be gruesome, but it's this other world of literature that normally never gets covered in books about books."

The eclectic nature of the coverage is exemplified in the first chapter, "Books That Aren't Books", which includes aboriginal message sticks, Chinese oracle bones, an Incan knotted quipu and an American Civil War soldier's diary inscribed onto on the back of his violin.

The chapter "Books Made of Flesh and Blood" certainly covers the gruesome, for example, the 605-page Qur'an written with 50 pints of the blood of Saddam Hussein. From 1997 to 1999, Hussein allegedly had 24 and 27 litres of blood drained from his body which were than chemically mixed to produce an "ink" to write the 336,000 words encapsulated in 6,000 verses.

After the fall of Baghdad, the "Blood Qur'an" was locked away but it couldn't be destroyed, being a Qur'an. It is now apparently locked in a vault, which needs three separate keys held by three different officials to open.

Brooke-Hitching's numerous footnotes are always informative. Appended to the Qur'an account, he notes that a French 16-year-old in 2018 became the first human being to inject himself with DNA micromolecules containing verses of the Bible and the Qur'an. The Bible verse went into his left thigh, which caused an inflamation and the Qur'An into the right thigh which didn't! The injection was said to be "a symbol of peace between religions and science".

Strange facts abound, such as when 2.5 million Mills and Boons novels in 2003 were shredded and mixed into the foundations of a 16 mile stretch of England's M6 motorway to help bind the asphalt.

One of the strangest collectables must be 20 Slices of American Cheese (2018) compiled by New York publisher, Ben Denzer. Only 10 copies of a book, selling for $200 US and containing 20 slices of American Kraft cheese, were produced. The University of Michigan library bought one and reported to Brooke- Hitching, "It's 'shelf stable' "but ... we'll see how long it lasts".

Patria Amada (2014) by Vinicius Leoncio is thought to be one of the world's largest books. Weighing 7.5 tons, with 41,000 pages and including all Brazilian tax codes to that date, it was compiled by tax lawyer Leoncio as a protest against Brazil's ever-increasing and complex tax laws.

At the other end of the size scale, Brooke -Hitching documents the "thumb bibles" of the early 17th century and an Omar Khayyam which was about quarter of the size of a postage stamp, with one copy being set in a signet ring.

The Smallest Book in the World, the size of a peppercorn, published in Leipzig in 2002, is the world's smallest book in a published edition. Since then there have been nano books etched into micro-tablets of crystalline silicon.

Brooke-Hitching even covers books written from beyond the grave. Mark Twain is credited with writing a book seven years after his death, Jap Herron:A Novel Written from the Ouija Board (1917), while in 1884 Oliver Pettis produced an Autobiography by Jesus of Nazareth.

The 250 pages of The Madman's Library constitute a sumptuous bibliophilic cabinet of curiosities with many unusual stories to tell.

It is not a book to read cover to cover but rather a book to dip into, to admire the numerous colour illustrations and marvel at Brooke- Hitching's erudition at "expanding our sense of what it is we love about books".

This story Tour through a madman's library first appeared on The Canberra Times.