The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History is a delightful collection of books and related facts covering around 3,000 years. The books mentioned are not only literature and notable works but lesser known books in a range of areas. The ninety-nine books selected also tell something of the age that produced them. The Secret Library is divided into nine chapters covering the main periods of history from the Classical world, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Romanticism, as well as the Victorians, Europe and America to the modern world. Each chapter begins with a very brief discussion of the period in question.
Some of the gems found in The Secret Library include the oldest joke book in the world, Philogelos, with knee-slappers like this—One of a set of twins dies. A fool on meeting the surviving twin asks, ‘Was it you or your brother who died?’ (Was this fresh even in 400BC?) Also mentioned is the rumour that Dante taught his cat to hold a candle up when he was reading or eating, as well as the story of the jester to Prince Henry the son of James 1 of England, Thomas Coryat, who had written of his extensive travels and is credited with the introduction of forks to England. Then there is Dr John William Polidori whose story, The Vampyre, came out of the same informal competition the produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In a revised form The Vampyre played its part in the 1820s literary vampire craze. Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, seen as the greatest Christian novel of the 19th century, was not himself a Christian. Proust smoked opium cigarettes to alleviate his asthma. The book is packed full of such literary snippets, many of them interlinked. It begins with mention of Homer’s Amazons and ends with the fact that the first person to order a book online from Amazon.com was an Australian software engineer, John Wainright.
The Secret Library is an absolute treasure trove for lovers of books and miscellaneous facts. In is an easy read, written in a conversational tone with many genuinely amusing moments. It can either be read cover to cover or dipped in and out of.
This is an article by Oliver Tearle discussing the book with some more interesting book facts.