Alison Flood, of the Guardian, interviews a very knowledgeable book dealer and authority.
Edward Brooke-Hitching grew up in a rare book shop, with a rare book dealer for a father. As the author of histories of maps The Phantom Atlas, The Golden Atlas and The Sky Atlas, he has always been â€œreally fascinated by books that are down the back alleys of historyâ€. Ten years ago, he embarked on a project to come up with the â€œultimate libraryâ€. No first editions of Jane Austen here, though: Brooke-Hitchingâ€™s The Madmanâ€™s Library collects the most eccentric and extraordinary books from around the world.
â€œI was asking, if you could put together the ultimate library, ignoring the value or the academic significance of the books, what would be on that shelf if you had a time machine and unlimited budget?â€ he says.
Following up anecdotes, talking to booksellers and librarians and trawling through auction catalogues, he came across stories like that of the 605-page Qurâ€™an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein. â€œIf that was on a shelf, what could possibly sit next to it?â€ he asks. â€œI mentioned it to a bookseller and they told me about a diary that theyâ€™d had, from the 19th century, written by a shipwrecked captain who only had old newspaper and penguins to hand. So Fate of the Blenden Hall was written entirely in penguin blood.â€
Thereâ€™s the American civil war soldier who inscribed his journal of the conflict on to the violin he carried. Thereâ€™s the memoir of a Massachussetts highwayman, James Allen, which he â€œrequested be bound in his own skin after his death, and presented to his one victim who had fought back as a token of his admirationâ€. Or the diary of the Norwegian resistance fighter Petter Moen, pricked with a pin into squares of toilet paper and left in a ventilation shaft; although Moen was killed in 1944, one of his fellow prisoners returned to Oslo after it was liberated from the Nazis and found the diary. Or the entirely fabricated book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: its author George Psalmanazar, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned man with a thick French accent, arrived in London in about 1702 and declared himself to be the first Formosan, or Taiwanese, person to set foot on the European continent. (â€œObviously no one had been there and nobody knew what Taiwanese people looked like, and he became the toast of high society,â€ says Brooke-Hitching.)