Obscure books and their role in literary history
Our founder and chief librarian, Oliver Tearle, has written the following article on forgotten but noteworthy books, to mark the UK publication of his book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. The book is a whistle-stop tour of 3,000 years of Western history and is crammed full of the most surprising and fascinating facts he’s uncovered over the last four years since he founded Interesting Literature. If you want to learn about what the ancient Greeks laughed at, or like the idea of Tudor tales about talking cats, read on. The article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
By day, I’m a lecturer in English at Loughborough University in the UK. By night, I’m a literary blogger, whose Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness has now become a book. The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History (Michael O’Mara Books) is a whistle-stop tour of 3,000 years of Western history, told through civilisation’s most emblematic invention: the book. It considers all sorts of books: novels, plays, memoirs, diaries, cookbooks, joke books, travel books, and sports almanacs. Here are ten of the most obscure books I discovered locked away in Western history’s secret library, and the reasons we should know more about them.
Pigres, Batrachomyomachia. Homer’s Iliad is the first great epic of Western literature, and was probably composed in the eighth century BCE. But what was the first mock-epic? The comic poem Batrachomyomachia (‘Battle of Frogs and Mice’), which is tentatively attributed to a poet named Pigres, overturns the grand heroism of Homer’s epic about the Trojan War, using animals to poke fun at the story of the Iliad. The Trojan War becomes a petty squabble between amphibians and rodents.
Anonymous, Philogelos. This is the oldest surviving joke book, compiled by two Greek writers in around the fourth century. Many of the jokes involve poking fun at anyone not fortunate enough to have been born Greek: the Kymaeans (mocked for being stupid), the Sidonians (mocked for being really very stupid), and the Abderites (mocked for being stupid and for developing hernias a lot). Some of the jokes can still be admired for their economy of language, such as this exchange between a barber and his customer: ‘How would you like your hair cut?’ ‘In silence.’ Quite.
Anonymous, The Forme of Cury. This early English cookbook was compiled in around 1390 for King Richard II, and includes recipes for, among others, an early blancmange (which in the Middle Ages contained meat – who would have thought it was possible for blancmange to be worse than it already was?), a salad, and some spicier dishes containing nutmeg, ginger, and pepper. It’s even been suggested that ‘cury’ (Middle English for ‘cookery’) evolved into the word ‘curry’, though that remains contentious.
William Baldwin, Beware the Cat. This short work of comic fiction, written in the mid-sixteenth century by a printer’s assistant, takes place among the dark streets of Tudor London and features a cast of werewolves and talking cats, plenty of scatological humour, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s here, rather than in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that ‘Grimalkin’ makes its debut as the name for a cat. As if that isn’t recommendation enough, it might also be called an early English novel.
Anne Locke, A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner. Anne Locke (c. 1530-c.1590) has a notable claim to fame. The sequence of 26 sonnets which this female Protestant reformer appended to a 1560 translation of John Calvin’s sermons is the first sonnet sequence in English literature, predating the usual candidate, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, by over 20 years. Although the sonnets were long thought the work of another reformer, John Knox, it’s now believed Locke was the author of them. What’s more, Locke’s sonnets don’t follow the Italian model but instead use the ‘Shakespearean’ rhyme scheme: in other words, Locke was writing Shakespearean sonnets four years before Shakespeare was even born.
Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities. One man is credited with introducing the following to England: the table-fork, the umbrella, and the William Tell myth. His name was Thomas Coryat (c. 1577-1617), an eccentric English traveller who wrote up his adventures in a bizarre and brilliant book in 1611. Coryat is believed to be the man referred to as ‘brave Master Shoe-tie the great traveller’ in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, on account of his penchant for walking a great deal – he once walked all the way from London to Venice in the same pair of shoes, though one presumes he had help crossing the English Channel.
Celia Fiennes, Travels. During her twenties, the noblewoman Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) began travelling around England on horseback, with only a couple of servants for company. She wrote up her travels for the amusement of her family, sharing her views of the places she visited, which included Ely (where she had to share her bed with ‘frogges and slow-worms and snailes’), Chester (where she encountered a highwayman), and the baths at Harrogate (which smelt like ‘carrion’ or a toilet, apparently). The spirit of travel must be in the Fiennes blood: one of her descendants is the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
Daniel Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Often called the first novel, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a storming success upon its publication – so successful, in fact, that Defoe might be credited with writing not only English literature’s first novel but also its first cash-in sequel. The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe appeared just months after the original novel, and sees Crusoe return to the island on which he had been stranded in the first book. He then travels to Madagascar and the Far East. This sequel itself proved so popular that Defoe then produced another sequel, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, which appeared the following year.
Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) wasn’t just Charles Darwin’s grandfather: he was also the first Darwin to put forward a theory of evolution. Although it was less convincing than his grandson’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Erasmus Darwin’s long poem The Temple of Nature (1803) eerily anticipates the more famous Darwin’s later discovery of natural selection, especially when Erasmus describes the ‘warring world’ of nature as ‘one great Slaughter-house’.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Conchologist’s First Book. Poe may be celebrated these days for his contribution to the short story (he’s even the first known person to have used the term), but the only book successful enough to be reprinted during his lifetime was a non-fiction study of molluscs. Although the book’s often regarded as hackwork – Poe wrote it for the money, and much of the writing entailed simply rewriting previous scholarly studies of snails – Stephen Jay Gould argued that it was an innovative work of natural history, not least because it was one of the first such books to discuss not just the shells of the snails but the molluscs themselves.
The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History is available now if you’re in the UK, from your favourite bookstore (and if it isn’t available there, we say get a new favourite). You can also learn more about the book in the wonderful video above, created by the animator and illustrator Gemma Green-Hope.