Codex Curiousum

Edward Brooke-Hitching – The Madman’s Library (Simon and Schuster, 2020)

There’s an art to a good curio. A fine balance must be struck between strangeness, rarity and simplicity of paraphrase. The ideal curate’s egg is something you can summarise in the time it takes to idly pick it off a shelf and pass it to a curious fellow-reader.

It must then reveal some, but not all, of its secrets on first parsing. That way, you leave your guest still curious when, a few minutes after you’ve passed it to them, you snatch it away and replace it on the shelf.

My fiancée has an excellent eye for them. Two recent acquisitions include:

My Idealed John Bullesses by Yoshio Markino: a book written by a Japanese author, in broken English, in which he explains at length his attraction to British women. Published in 1912 and richly illustrated, it raises endless questions not so much about the author but about who chose to publish it and why.

Słownik wiedzy obywatelskiej: a Polish “dictionary of political phrases” released under communism. Its Marxist-Leninist bias, presented under the guise of objectivity, is fascinating (provided you read Polish). There’s also a page where a Polish reader has risked prison by drawing a Hitler moustache on Lenin.

My latest purchase is not a curio of this order (a first-hand curio, if you will), but rather a new book that gathers curios together (a second-hand, or encyclopaedia of curios, perhaps).

Edward Brooke-Hitching, in an effort to create a coffee-table book to end all coffee-table books, has gathered together hundreds of rare and strange books and placed them together into one mind-bending volume.

Subtitled “The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiousities from History,” The Madman’s Library is a perfect collection for readers like myself who are not full-fledged book collectors, but do love a good rare book; and the weirder the better.

There are Guinness Book of Records-type books; from the miniature “thumb Bibles” of the seventeenth century to Vinicius Leôncio’s 41,000 page Pátria Amada (a 6’11” high book that contains all of Brazil’s tax code; printed out as a protest against red tape).

Then there are the historical curiosities: Incan knot-language, books bound with human skin, and medieval bestiaries. A personal favourite here is the Liber Belial; a fifteenth-century book that purports to contain a legal case launched by the Devil against Jesus, complaining that the Christ was “trespassing” in hell when he went down to rescue the lost souls.

That one, I admit, sent me to abebooks. No copies available, sadly.

Nor could I find a reasonably priced copy of Nancy Luce’s Poor Little Hearts (1866): a book of poetry written for her chickens. Nor Mary Ann Herold’s A Basic Guide to the Occult for Law Enforcement Agencies (1986) either.

Luckily, I already own a copy of the I Ching, Jonathan Swift’s The Benefits of Farting Explained, and From India to the Planet Mars; a book detailing the psychic Hélène Smith’s multiple personalities: Marie Antoinette, Mughal Emperors and canal diggers on Mars.

As for John Dee’s Book of Enoch, written in the language of angels, or the as-yet-untranslated Voynich Manuscript; simply being able to see snatches of these works in photographic reproductions is enough to conjure their peculiar magic.

The Madman’s Library is a book that truly understands what the world of curio collecting is all about: titillation. Few of these books would reward a second reading, and many are hardly worth reading the first time; at least not from cover to cover. They are primarily objects, things that draw in the curiosity and then, just as quickly, deny it full satisfaction.

For this reason, many of the books produced during the automatic writing craze of the 1920s are no longer of great interest. Nor are any of the cut-up poems made by lesser writers in the wake of William Burroughs. These are strange works, but easily explainable.

A book written in the language of angels, or an ancient Japanese scroll depicting “fart duelling”, however; these come to us as if from an alien planet. We have no context for them and so they, as strange objects, are both interesting in themselves and a glimpse into a world of even larger mysteries.

A strange book is like a fragment of possibility. A shattered crystal ball has dropped a shard into our hands.

It’s for this reason that I think Brooke-Hitching’s book, despite its (necessarily) list-like presentation, is worth reading from start to finish. It is a book that is perfect for browsing, but it also forms an ad-hoc history of the book as an object. The printed codex, viewed from the periphery.

It’s beautiful object itself and one that will surely tempt every MRB reader.

Joe Darlington

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