In Over Coffee, writer, reader, and haphazard reviewer Angela Lashbrook chats with authors about their recent books, and quizzes them on their hot breakfast takes.
In 1708, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, writer Jonathan Swift published an almanac of predictions, titled, helpfully, Predictions for the Year 1708. Contained within it was the prediction that another almanac author, astrologer and Whig-supporter John Partridge, “will infallibly die upon 29 March next, about 11 at night, of raging fever.” Swift quickly followed up his almanac with a pamphlet, The Accomplishment of the first of Mr Bickerstaff’s Predictions. Being an account of the Death of Mr Partridge, announcing that Partridge had indeed succumbed to fever — but not before admitting he was a fraud in his final words.
Except Partridge was very much alive, and urgently published his own follow-up pamphlet attempting to prove it. Swift swiftly released another pamphlet, denouncing the “Partridge” pamphlet as a hoax; it would be six years before anyone would believe that Partridge was, indeed, still living and breathing.
This story, while certainly tragic for Partridge and his wife, had me laughing out loud as I read author and rare book collector Edward Brooke-Hitching’s recent release, The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiosities from History. The book, a beautiful compendium of stories about some truly bizarre, fascinating, and hilarious literary artifacts dating back to ancient times, is one I can see myself buying as a gift for the book lovers in my life — or for anyone who merely requires a mental reprieve. On days when my brain, struggling through pandemic stress or plain old, run-of-the-mill exhaustion, needed a hug, The Madman’s Library on my bedside table served as the ideal emotional and intellectual panacea to my malaise: pithy, strange stories about mysterious unbreakable ciphers, books written on human skin, ancient grimoires, controversial Biblical typos, disturbing anatomical illustrations before scientists understood the human body, spherical typewriters, and more.
Aside from Jonathan Swift’s shenanigans, my other favorite story in The Madman’s Library deals with another hoax: a trumped-up book sale. In August 1840, a horde of book collectors showed up in a small Belgian town for the auction of the private library of a recently dead Jean Nepomucene-Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas. Literary obsessives and rare book collectors, in part, were especially excited about this sale because the library catalog advertised books no one had ever heard of before, and were thus quite valuable; one book promised to reveal “intimate medical details of Louis XIV’s troublesome bottom,” complete with illustration of such bottom. Attendees to the sale included the director of the Belgian Royal Library and a princess.
But when they arrived, alas: they couldn’t find the auction. The street on which it was supposed to take place didn’t exist, the town didn’t even have a library, and no one in the region had ever heard of the supposed “Comte de Fortsas.” It would be sixteen years before the perpetrator of this elaborate and seemingly pointless hoax was discovered; people later reflected that the man, a retired military officer, was seen mingling with the confused crowd as they searched in vain for the sale.
These are but two of many stories in The Madman’s Library that had me in stitches as I read. For the complete collection of gruesome, weird, and mysterious images alongside their extraordinary stories, buy The Madman’s Library on Bookshop.
Below, read my interview with author and book collector Edward Brooke-Hitching about Saddam Hussein’s Qu’ran written in his own blood, the theorized connection between the Voynich Manuscript and aliens, and why fresh air makes the best breakfast.
Which literary object in The Madman’s Library has the most bizarre story?
Well every book in The Madman’s Library was chosen for their bizarreness so it’s tough to choose! But I think my favourite in terms of strangeness is probably The Triangular Book of St. Germain of c.1750, a manuscript with an unusual shape that is said to hold the secret to eternal life.
It was written by the eccentric Count St. Germain, a mysterious gentleman who delighted 18th-century French nobility at dinner parties with the tales of his long life — he claimed, for example, to have attended the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. The English writer Horace Walpole wrote of him at the time: ‘He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad.’ Alternatively, if you’re looking for something more recent but equally as strange, there is the Blood Qur’an of Saddam Hussein, commissioned by the Iraqi dictator in 2000, written over a period of two years using 50 pints of his own blood. After the fall of Baghdad, it was squirrelled away in an archive away from public view. It now presents a dilemma to its caretakers, as it’s forbidden to create such a monstrosity, but it’s also forbidden to destroy a Qur’an — so what to do with it?
What’s the greatest outstanding mystery from The Madman’s Library?
One of the chapters of the book collects cryptic books and manuscripts, and so is filled with mysteries. One of the most famous is the Voynich Manuscript, by which we have been perpetually fascinated since its discovery in 1912 by a Polish rare book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, hidden among a pile of manuscripts in the Villa Mondragone, Italy. It’s packed with hypnotically strange illustrations of things like non-existent plants and scenes of people bathing together, but its text has never been cracked. (I’ve included some full-page images in my book so you can attempt to decode it yourself.) Over the years, there have been some wild theories as to the impenetrable language of the text. It’s seventh- century Welsh/Old Cornish; it’s an early German language; it’s the Manchu language of the Qing dynasty (1636–1911) of China; it’s Hebrew enciphered by Roger Bacon, describing alien technology of the future for generating DNA with sound. Perhaps it’s the Nahuatl language of the Aztec written by Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514–87), naturalist and court physician to the King of Spain; or it could be the language of the angels, linked to John Dee’s Book of Enoch, with the illustrations of unknown plants perhaps being the original species found in the Garden of Eden. It’s a recipe book; a diary; a guide to viewing galaxies using telescopes (by Roger Bacon again); a nonsense stage prop made by Francis Bacon; an early work by Leonardo da Vinci; a record of speaking in tongues; and so on.
If a film producer came to you and said they wanted to collaborate on a feature film/TV show about an object in The Madman’s Library, which one would you choose? Why?
My favourite kind of eccentric character from history is the impostor, and a character I’ve been obsessively researching for years is George Psalmanazar of 18th-century England, who is screaming for his own Netflix series that I’d love to write! He appeared in London at the turn of the century, claiming to be the first Formosan (Taiwanese) person to have stepped foot on the European continent. The thing is, he was blond-haired, blue-eyed and spoke with a French accent. But these details didn’t impede his escapades, because he was fantastically good at maintaining the imposture with great intelligence and wit. He became the toast of London high society, delighting dinner party guests by guzzling his meat raw and telling wild stories of his homeland, of how priests sacrificed thousands of children and ate their hearts, for example. He spoke and wrote his own made-up “Formosan” language, and became good friends with Dr. Johnson and other contemporary intellectual luminaries. He never revealed his true name, and outwitted every person who tried to prove him a fake. This included the time he was grilled before an audience by Edmund Halley at the Royal Society. His pale skin? Why, that was because Formosans lived underground without light. Surely the overhead Sun shines directly down the chimneys of his country, pointed out Halley, for it lies in the tropics. An excellent point, agreed Psalmanazar, were it not for the fact that Formosan chimneys are corkscrew-shaped — the sunlight never makes it to the bottom.
Do you have a breakfast routine or do you tend to wing it? What does the routine consist of, if so? How important is this routine to you?
I do have a routine, but the fact is I haven’t eaten breakfast for the last 20 years, I’ve just never needed to. I’ve never had a cup of coffee or tea either, which in England leaves people baffled and suspicious. What I do need, though, is fresh air to blow the dust off the neurons, so I walk for two hours through the beautiful Berkshire countryside where I live, and then sit down to write for the day. A blast of oxygen has the same effect on the mind as it does on a fire. (Coffee does smell good, though…)