Best Wellers Pick

Every other month the staff of Weller Book Works nominates and then votes on books we deem worthy of extra attention, our Best Weller's selection. We discount these books to you by 20% during the months for which they're chosen because we believe in them.



The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History Cover Image
ISBN: 9781797207308
Availability: On Our Shelves Now

Published: Chronicle Books - April 6th, 2021

Reviewed by Tony Weller

The Madman’s Library is a beautiful and smart array of unique books and a few ununique ones that are seriously strange. When I picked it, I was first excited by the abundance of great photographs; when I began reading the erudite and fetching writing pulled me in—the style is book-wonky enough to excite but, like a savvy performer, author Edward Brooke-Hitchings leaves you curious for more. His previous books include the popular Sky, Phantom and Devil’s Atlases. The Madman’s Library is a curious tour for biblionauts. 

You may have inferred that the books described here are not the collection of a particular madman, and this reader notes that Brooke-Hitchings’ application of “mad” is whimsical and various in meaning. The reader must likewise permit a broad definition of book. It is a stretch for me to consider any object with writing a book, but it is fascinating reading that Egyptians were so dedicated to script-covered mummy wrappings that they imported linen for burials.

Some of the books described herein are the products of crazy persons, others of odd loners, some made for leaders and despots, some for magical purposes. Some are of such obscure origins that we can only speculate about the intentions of their creators. Some are projections of radical creativity or religious obsession. This collection is such a diverse collection of bookish oddities that I barely know which to mention. But know this: the books I don’t mention are not at all like the ones I do.

Modern books are mostly paper, and many modern readers are surprised to learn that until the late 19th century, bookmakers struggled to get enough of it. Many fibrous materials have been used to make paper, but books have also been made from rendered materials such as papyrus and parchment, which is treated animal skin—goat, sheep, calf. Very few persons had books when they were made thus. In the Middle-Ages, it required 50-70 sheep to make a parchment Bible. Throughout history, magical powers have been attributed to various animals. In The Madman’s Library are photos and a description of a Nepalese shaman’s manual with the flesh and blood of five beasts representing five senses and passions on its cover: buffalo, chicken, dog, goat, cow.

Part of the book discusses codes and ciphers. Here I learned that old copies of the Kama Sutra were sometimes made in cipher. I also learned, incidentally (haven’t yet read it, have you?), that the Kama Sutra also teaches cookery, bookbinding, chess, conjuring and…writing in cipher.

And I really must conclude with the ornate and mysterious alchemy manuscripts: The Ripley Scroll which gives instructions for creating the Philosopher’s Stone; the Beautiful 16th-century Splendor Solis; Abu al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī al-Simāwi’s Book of Seven Climes; China’s 1856 Waiki tashuo (Pictorial Manual of External Medicine—Hey, why does it recommend an elixir of mercury?); and the German Clavis Artis, purportedly originally drawn on the skin of a dragon.

I am drunk with mystical speculation and so many ken-stretching ideas between two covers. Biblio-nerds and seekers of mysteries, lovers of art and the bizarre: This is a book for you.