Edward Brooke-Hitching grew up in a rare book shop, with a rare book dealer for a father. As a result, he was always interested in finding out more about rare books. Ten years ago, he embarked on a project to come up with the “ultimate library”. Now, Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library collects the most eccentric and extraordinary books from around the world. Here is a list of the strangest books as selected by Edward Brooke-Hitching:
Saddam Hussein’s Blood Qur’an
On his 60th birthday in 1997, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein commissioned the master calligrapher Abbas Shakir Joudi al-Baghdadi to produce a Qur’an written in Hussein’s blood. Over a period of two years, somewhere between 24 and 27 litres was allegedly drained from the dictator and mixed with chemicals to produce enough “ink” to write out the 336,000 words in 6,000 verses. Exquisitely beautiful, the Blood Qur’an was eventually displayed in another of Hussein’s enterprises, the Umm al-Ma’arik (Mother of All Battles) mosque in Baghdad.
After the fall of Baghdad, the Blood Qur’an was hastily stored away by curators until they could decide how to deal with it, as it presented a dilemma: while it is haraam (forbidden) to reproduce a Qur’an in such a manner, it is equally unthinkable to destroy a Qur’an, regardless of how it was made. At the time of writing, the dilemma is unresolved. In 2010, the Iraqi prime minister’s spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi proposed that the Blood Qur’an should be kept “as a document of the brutality of Saddam”, but it remains out of sight, hidden in a vault to which there are three keys, each held by a separate public official, none with any idea of what to do with the extraordinary book.
De integritatis et corruptionis virginum by Séverin Pineau
This treatise on virginity, pregnancy and childbirth was printed in Amsterdam. The book’s owner, Dr Ludovic Bouland, explains in a note: “This curious little book … has been re-dressed in a piece of the skin of a woman tanned for myself.” As unthinkably weird as it is to modern sensibilities, in Europe and the US, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries, binding a book in human skin became an acceptable decorative extra when publishing accounts of murderers’ crimes and medical studies.
The Triangular Book of Count St Germain
This is an encoded French occult work which boasts the secret to extending life. The mysterious and eccentric Count St Germain was an adventurer and alchemist who thrilled 18th-century Europe’s high society with his claim to have uncovered the secret to longevity. He was so old, he said, that he had attended the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water to wine. Horace Walpole wrote of him: “He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad.”
Compendium of Demonology and Magic, author and date unknown
While the date of 1057 is given on the title page (as well as the warning “Noli me tangere” – “Don’t touch me”), this is clearly in the tradition of presenting grimoires to seem much older than they actually are, and it is usually dated to 1775. Over 35 extraordinary illustrated pages, the author paints conjurations, devils devouring limbs, flames and snakes bursting from crotches. One image shows a magician digging for treasure, only to find that his accomplice has been seized by a nine-foot cockerel-headed demon that is also casually urinating on their lantern.
La Confession Coupée … ou la méthode facile pour se preparer aux confessions by Christophe Leuterbreuver
Translated as “The Cut-out Confession; or the easy method of preparing for confession”, this book by a French cleric first appeared in 1677, and was so popular that it was reprinted in further editions as late as 1751. The book is a catalogue of every 17th-century sin conceivable, divided into chapters headed by the 10 commandments. Each misdeed is printed on a tab that can be peeled away from the page to stand out, helping the confessor to flick quickly through the book to find the relevant wrongdoings in the confessional.
Pátria Amada by Vinicius Leôncio
In Brazil in 2014, a tax lawyer named Vinicius Leôncio created one of the world’s largest books as a form of protest. The result of 23 years’ work, Pátria Amada (Beloved Country), is a 7.5-ton testament to the ridiculous immensity and complexity of Brazilian tax laws.
A Manual of Mathematics (Jinko ̄ki), author unknown
This is an extraordinary book. Instead of using line diagrams, the author uses drawings of rats in various poses to illustrate lessons in complex geometric progression and the calculation of the volume of 3D figures
20 Slices of American Cheese by Ben Denzer
Only 10 copies were made of 20 Slices of American Cheese by Denzer, a New York publisher, which contains precisely what its title describes. A packet of 24 slices of Kraft American cheese slices costs roughly $3.50; 20 Slices sold for $200.