Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library begins with a question. ‘Which books’, he wonders, ‘would inhabit the shelves of the greatest library of literary curiosities, put together by a collector unhindered by space, time and budget?’ It’s a rather flimsy peg on which to hang this ragbag of bibliographical oddities, but no matter. There are enough mind-boggling books and hair-curling anecdotes here to keep most readers engrossed: volumes in every shape and size, too tiny to see, too large to be read, or just too bizarre to get your head around. Drawn from all corners of the world and diverse historical periods, these are often objects that would be hard to shelve. The first chapter, ‘Books That Aren’t Books’, gives us a sixth-century Aramaic incantation bowl, knotted strings of quipu (an Incan method of writing) and the battle diary of an American Civil War soldier etched into the back of his violin, for instance. Clearly, we’re closer to the eclecticism of the early modern cabinet of curiosities than the logic of the library. Park any such pedantic observations, however, and simply sit back and enjoy the ride as the book sails off into ever more outlandish territory.
There’s a potted history of the grisly practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding books in human skin) and an account of how Saddam Hussein commissioned a copy of the Koran written in his own blood. The ‘Religious Oddities’ chapter, meanwhile, gives us the eccentric John Murray Spear, who penned Messages from