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The Madman's Library - The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a weighty yet stunning hardback book bursting with glorious images and plates showing the books - and their pages - described within. According to his bio, Edward Brooke-Hitching lives in London and is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, which may shed light on his interest in unusual books, obscure books, famous and forgotten books.

It's immediately clear that the author is a well-researched book lover and bibliophile, and it doesn't take much effort for the reader to match his enthusiasm for books and of course reading them.

The author gives us a tantalising sample of what we can look forward to early on:

"Invisible books, books that kill, books so tall that motors are needed to turn their pages and books so long they could destroy the universe. Edible books. Wearable books. Books made of skin, bones, feathers and hair. Spell books, shaman manuals, alchemist scrolls, sin books and the ancient work known as the 'Cannibal Hymn'. Books to communicate with angels, and books to summon treasure-hunting demons. The lawsuit filed by the Devil, and a contract bearing his signature. Books worn into battle, books that tell the future, books found inside fish or wrapped around mummified Egyptians. Leechbooks, psychic books, treasure-finding texts and the code-writing hidden in the Bible." Introduction Page 16

The writing strikes a comfortable balance between being well researched and well written while never tipping over into the dry and academic style of writing that often ruins my interest level in books like this. Brooke-Hitching really gets it.

"But these books breathe. They hold thoughts, knowledge and humour otherwise long gone. Their stories - and to a degree, their authors - are alive upon opening them, undiminished by the violence of time." Introduction Page 16

Tell me you haven't shared these thoughts this too. The use of hornbooks pops up in my reading from time to time, and while I'd once Googled to clarify what they were, I don't recall ever seeing one, until now, which was a joy.

And while I knew what a hornbook was, I'd never heard of a xylothek or a wooden library, have you? According to the author, Xylotheks:

"... record arboreal biodiversity by forming a library from the trees themselves. Each volume is made of the wood of a different tree, their spines composed of the bark... and their contents containing specimens of the tree's leaves, seeds, branches and roots." Books that Aren't Books, Page 34

I defy any reader to view the accompanying photograph in the book and not instinctively want to reach out to touch and smell the volumes. Apparently xylothek collections of native flora can be found around the world and we have one here in Australia! Who knew?

I enjoyed studying the sheer ingenuity and variety in the emerging designs for the typewriter, and of course reading about the Voynich Manuscript; a book that has been studied around the world, but never been successfully decoded or deciphered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Madman's Library and have already made plans to read his follow up published in 2022, entitled The Madman's Gallery - The Strangest Paintings, Sculptures and Other Curiosities from the History of Art. Here he turns his eye to the 'greatest curiosities from the global history of art' by gathering together more than a hundred 'magnificently eccentric antique paintings, engravings, illustrations and sculptures, each chosen for their striking beauty and the wonderfully bizarre story behind their creation.'

Colour me interested!
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Carpe_Librum | Hi ha 11 ressenyes més | Feb 17, 2024 |
Truly lives up to its title. If you ever find yourself bored or disillusioned by the society of today, rest assured that the same ennui and the same problems have persisted over the last few millennia, except that they were less well documented and often had novel, entertaining, or even barbaric variations. Even though we now have fairly authoritative disciplines in biology, chemistry, mathematics, etc., the basic human drive to map the unknown still persists, and it's likely some of our current practices will be deemed antiquated and backward by people of the far-flung future, just as we say the same of the works of medieval philosophers, physicians, and the occasional astrologer and/or quack. History never ceases to repeat itself, with subtle variations depending on the writer in question; and yet, intriguing creations can be found in every major period of our existence.

My personal favorite section is, unsurprisingly, "Cryptic Books" which includes a description of an endlessly captivating work, The Voynich Manuscript. A close second would be the beautiful paper instruments from the "Books that aren't Books" category. The historical background on anthropodermic bibliopegy, a euphemism for binding books in human skin, was creepy yet morbidly interesting, serving as a reminder that humans can accept just about anything if social and political circumstances dampen the blow. There simply isn't enough space to write down my thoughts about all the other sections, but suffice it to say that reality is stranger than fiction, and the history behind our literature is a fascinating one that is often lost behind the appearance of an ordinary-looking cover. Some of these works were truly artistic labors of love while others verge on the grotesque and horrific, but the personalities and stories are worth remembering. And, as if my TBR list isn't long enough, I should now have enough obscure, occult, mythological and artistic reading material to last me another couple of years.

In short, I'm glad to be reminded that books and literature are the physical manifestation of humanity's quest for answers, and though it's a long and arduous process for us to discover them, the process is worth knowing about - if only to become more aware of our origins, however dark and misinformed they might have been. It's all the more instructive and helps instill a sense of appreciation for how far we've made it, and how far we have yet to go. And I now want really badly to become a rare book dealer / art historian / archivist to get a firsthand look at some of the works that were presented. I'll end with a beautifully worded quote from the book:

"More than most, these are books with real stories to tell. Each redefines, in its own way, the concept of just what a book can be; each brings a skip to the heartbeat of the bibliophile, rewriting and expanding our sense of what it is we love about books. And yet for one reason or another these volumes were banished to the silted depths of obscurity. But these books breathe. They hold thoughts, knowledge, and humour otherwise long gone. Their stories - and to a degree, their authors - are alive upon opening them, undiminished by the violence of time. It seems only right to reach out and recover them, to bring them all together in the pages of this book, a dedicated library all their own. The oddballs, the deviants, the long-lost misfits - the forgotten recollected."
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Myridia | Hi ha 11 ressenyes més | Jan 19, 2024 |
The Publisher Says: Packed with strange stories and spectacular illustrations, The Devil's Atlas leads you on an adventure through the afterlife, exploring the supernatural worlds of global cultures to form a fascinating traveler's guide quite unlike any other.

From the author of the critically acclaimed bestsellers The Phantom Atlas, The Sky Atlas, and The Madman's Library comes a unique and beautifully illustrated guide to the heavens, hells, and lands of the dead as imagined throughout history by cultures and religions around the world. Packed with colorful maps, paintings, and captivating stories, The Devil's Atlas is a compelling tour of the geography, history, and supernatural populations of the afterworlds of cultures around the globe. Whether it's the thirteen heavens of the Aztecs, the Chinese Taoist netherworld of "hungry ghosts," Islamic depictions of Paradise, or the mysteries of the Viking mirror world, each is conjured through astonishing images and a highly readable trove of surprising facts and narratives, stories of places you'd hope to go, and those you definitely would not. A traveler's guide to worlds unseen, here is a fascinating visual chronicle of our hopes, fears, and fantasies of what lies beyond.

DISCOVER THE BEYOND: From the depths of underworlds to the heights of heavens and everywhere else a life after death may be spent, this atlas explores the geography, history, and supernatural populations of the afterworlds of global mythologies.

A GLOBAL SURVEY: From the demon parliament of the ancient Maya, to the eternal globe-spanning quest to find the Earthly Paradise, to the "Hell of the Flaming Rooster" of Japanese Buddhist mythology (in which sinners are tormented by an enormous fire-breathing cockerel), The Devil's Atlas gathers together a wonderful variety of beliefs and representations of life after death.

UNUSUAL AND UNSEEN: These afterworlds are illustrated with an unprecedented collection of images. They range from the marvelous "infernal cartography" of the European Renaissance artists attempting to map the structured Hell described by Dante and the decorative Islamic depictions of Paradise to the various efforts to map the Garden of Eden and the spiritual vision paintings of nineteenth-century mediums.

EXPERT AUTHOR: Edward Brooke-Hitching is a master of taking visually–driven deep dives into unusual historical subjects, such as the maps of imaginary geography in The Phantom Atlas, ancient pathways through the stars in The Sky Atlas, and the literary oddities lining the metaphorical shelves of The Madman's Library.

Perfect for:

  • Obscure history and mythology enthusiasts Anyone with an interest in the occult

  • Spiritual curiosity seekers

  • Map lovers


    My Review
    : A browser's bonanza of images, facts, and ideas about what happens After. There's a lot of art devoted to this subject, pro and con, over the course of the centuries humanity's hhad enough food to enable people to sit around and think about Death instead of just living with death at every corner, on ecery bend of the road.

    There are lots of wheels in the concept of the Afterlife. The Wheel of the Seasons, the sky's great, unending, repetitive turning (which was much more obvious in the time before light pollution ended the sky's dominance of nighttime) seems to have made us into the cycle-spotters that we are. Reincarnation, endlessly cycling through lives on Earth, flowed from this. So did the idea of the duality of Heaven and Hell, the top and bottom of the Wheel's spin.

    The artwork, as you see, is gorgeous; the text, which you can't read, is fascinating, and shows the author's easy command of the topic at hand. Nothing in here will make you an expert. If, however, you're curious about how the ancient humans came to think what we now accept as pretty ordinary thoughts about the Afterlife, there is a lot of material in here to point you at areas of further study.

    You knew I'd get to ancient Egypt, right? Me, who uses ma'at in all my death-related reviews?

    Have a Bosch, just for fun! This guy had a very, very clear vision of what he thought Hell was going to be. Lots of butts in Bosch's hell. The author doesn't go into (!) that. The focus is not solely on Western ideas of Afterlife, lest I have misled you...

    ...all cultures that have thought about this and left visual representations of it are at least touched on. The author knows his audience. The curious, the art-eyed, the seekers after the paths our ancestors walked...all are doing to find reasons to enjoy this gorgeous gift.
    … (més)
    richardderus | Hi ha 1 ressenya més | Dec 7, 2023 |
    This. Is. The. Best. Book. Ever.
    Gathered and copiously illustrated by the QI writer Edward Brooke-Hitching, every single page is full of delights and bizarre stories and a dry wit that had me spitting my coffee out at the breakfast table.
    I paced myself as soon as I’d read the first chapter, knowing that I needed to fully dip in to each page. It’s all about ‘extraordinary volumes’, from those written in blood and feathers to ones with type so tiny it wrecked the typesetter’s eyes, from literary hoaxes (delightful!) to curiosities of science (astonishing).
    I was beyond thrilled to hear that one could write a million worded diary and donate it to a local college (tempting) with included nose hairs (for future study), that the shortest poem was mn, and sold for many pounds, that the small man used in a royal court as a sandwich filler by a giant snapped and shot a tormenter through the head (cheers!!).
    Every, every page is full of treasure. I’ve recommended this book to everyone, even sent it to a few.
    Buy it. It’s one you want on your bookshelves, if only to startle guests.
    Now I’m off to read one of his other tantalizingly-titled books: ‘Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling, and Other Forgotten Sports’. Who can resist such a title? (Ps: the Madman’s Library has a section of odd titles that I plan to use as inspiration for titles for what I write)
    … (més)
    Dabble58 | Hi ha 11 ressenyes més | Nov 11, 2023 |



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