Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Jan 2021

The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching

Brooke-Hitching is a rare book collector and the son of an antiquarian book dealer but he also writes for the television programme, QI which, I’m sure you know deals in the uncovering of unusual or bizarre nuggets of information. This book, therefore, seems to represent the inevitable outcome of bringing all these aspects of his work together in one place – and the result is a quite remarkable miscellany of printed material that at times defies categorisation.

Although it contains plenty of extraordinary stuff and is lavishly illustrated, it isn’t, mercifully, either a ‘funny’ book or a coffee-table gift. Actually the research and scholarship behind this compendium of the fantastic is very solid and very readable.

The books he features have been divided into broad collective categories – a way of organising the material that has the effect of amplifying the impact of each individual entry. A good example of this is the section called ‘Books Made of Flesh and Blood’ which starts off with the not quite so remarkable example of using materials like snake skin or fish scales for bindings and then ramps up its ghoulishness until we get to the inevitable bindings made from human skin – something of a doubtful obsession for the Decadents. Along the way we also encounter books written in blood – Saddam Hussain’s ‘Blood Qur’an’ for example – and text inscribed on a human skull. It all makes for a rather thrilling chapter when taken as a whole.

We also get introduced to the books that aren’t books – including a selection of cheese slices bound to look like a hardback – and texts written in strange codes or with the oddest titles. We encounter literary hoaxes, scientific spectaculars and odd-ball curiosities that defy being placed in a category. But, by some distance (and this probably reflects my predilections), my favourite section is the one entitled ‘Works of the Supernatural’.

I really don’t think there is anything more entertaining than the attempts made by the religiously devout to instruct the rest of humanity about the terrors of evil and the works of the Devil. It’s well understood that fear and fascination are bed-fellows and that ‘the Devil has all the good tunes’ but here is evidence in plenty that the Devil has some of the best book illustrators too. Informed by frisson of fear that contemplation of the Devil and all his minions can inspire, book illustrators have always let their imaginations rip when it comes to ‘the supernatural’ in all its forms.

But just how do you draw a demon? How can you make it inhuman and the incarnation of evil without simply creating grotesque human beings? Well the answer seems to be that you construct them from unlikely parts of as many different unpleasant animals as you can. A bit of serpent here, a bit of bat there, the talons of an eagle and the demented of face of a pig – and make sure that they have unpleasantly exaggerated genitals and a penchant for toasting forks they want to insert in your fleshy bits.

Brooke-Hitching gives us a pretty exhaustive trip through the books designed to instruct and inform about what happens if you’re not a good believer and in so doing admirably demonstrates how writer and illustrators are in fact more thrilled by their flirtation with the dark side than they are with religious instruction.

This is a great book for dipping into and grazing over – you’ll return to it many times I have no doubt and there’s plenty of informed detail here to contextualise the sensational illustration.

Currently only available in hardback as I write this review, it must be due a paperback release in the not too distant future.


Terry Potter

January 2021