Book Review: The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tea
by Renee Kimball
Sometimes you stumble unawares into a book and then, in total surprise, you are rewarded. That was my experience when I happened to find The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Dr. Oliver Tearle. This is a book a bookish reader can gobble up, each chapter one more rich tidbit that goes on and on – an entertaining, multi-layered literary feast.
Tearle begins with an old question: “What book would you like to take with you if you are left on a desert island?” (We all know that question, and we also know the answer varies widely in response both to what you have read, as well as, your age). And having asked this question, Tearle provides G.K. Chesterton’s still witty reply: “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.” A response Tearle says is guaranteed to produce a smile.
But you ask, who is Oliver Tearle?
Dr. Oliver Tearle is a professor of English at Loughborough University, United Kingdom, and the author of The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey through Curiosities of History. Tearle is also the creator of the highly popular literature blog, Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, touting 25,000 followers, along with an enviable presence on Twitter and Facebook. If numbers are proof of success, those that follow Tearle appear much more than just a little bit interested in literature’s long and quirky history.
In the “About,” section of Tearle’s website, he offers the intent behind his blog:“. . . The aim is simple: to uncover the little-known interesting facts about the world of books, and to shine a light on some of the more curious aspects of literature.”
Backtracking to Chesteron as to what might prompt a choice of books on that desert island, Tearle argues that for a book to be important enough, “the . . . book needn’t mean ‘great work of literature’ or ‘novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never had the time or courage to take on. . .”
“An important book can be relatively unknown except to a few, but its impact upon ‘Western society’, is immense, citing to Euclid’s Elements, or Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.
Writing The Secret Library, Tearle’s goal was to simply answer some questions he had had about literature; even though these may have been previously addressed, he wanted to go further and include “non-literary texts” as well.
Tearle stated he had . . . “two related aims: to bring to light the lesser-known aspects of well-known books, and to show how obscure and little-known books have surprising links with the familiar world around us. . . In short, it attempts to bring to light some hidden facts about both the best-known and the least-known books ever written, typed, inscribed, dictated, or indeed fabricated.”.
Beginning with what we have inherited from the Classical era that created the basis for all the arts, we are linked back to Ancient Greece (in gratitude). With Tearle, we are led even further forward into a bibliophile’s wonderland . . .” its a medley of curiosities, a whistle-stop tour around an imaginary library stuffed full of titles both familiar and forgotten. . .” If you are a curious book lover seeking unknown facts and authors, this is the reading adventure for you.
Throughout nine chapters, Tearle explores literature (gone but not forgotten) chronologically, from the Classical time forward. Each chapter ends with a clue tying it to the next chapter – it is up to the reader to puzzle it out and connect the clues. Without spoiling the book for would-be-readers, below are just a few of the interesting answers found within The Secret Library. . .
What is the oldest book known to man? . . .The Etruscan Gold Book, which was produced around 2,500 years ago. It comprises six large sheets of 24-carat gold which have been bound together with rings, thus forming a unified object that might be labelled a ‘book.” It was discovered in the mid-twentieth century; unfortunately, as it was written in Etruscan language, which we know very little about, deciphering it proved tricky, to say the least. (Note, Wikimedia Commons does not have a photo of this book; however, there are images of it on the web at various sites).
Is the Iliad the first great work of Western literature? “The Iliad is the first great work of Western literature probably composed in around the eighth century B.C. . . who Homer was remains a mystery. . .and after nearly three millennia unknowable. The story of the Greeks . . disguised in a big wooden horse inspired the Trojan horse (in computing, a piece of malware that infiltrates your computer by disguising itself as something benign).”
Who was Euclid? “. . .The greatest mathematician of ancient Greece was Euclid. But which Euclid? There were, it would appear, several. . .The attribution of the work to Euclid is the result of one passing reference made by a later writer, Proclus, naming Euclid as the author of, the book . . .most historians accept the attribution as fact.
Who was the first science fiction writer? “Pinpointing the starting-point of science fiction is a tricky undertaking. Did it begin with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864? Or Mary Shellye’s Frankenstein in 1818? . . .Asimov and Carl Sagan give the mantle to . . . astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose Somnium written in Latin in 1608, speculated on what the Earth might look like from the Moon. . .but the origins of science fiction can be traced back far earlier even than Kepler. . .to the second century. . . to a Syrian writer named Lucian, whose short work A True History has claim to being the first-ever work of science fiction. . .
Who owned the largest library in medieval England? “. . . Richard de Bury would have to be a contender. . .a fourteenth-century bishop of Durham, de Bury appears to have been something of an incurable bibliophile whose library dwarfed those of his fellow bishops. . .he has been described by his biographer Samuel Lane Boardman as the patron saint of book lovers. . .De Bury even wrote a book about his book obsession, Philobiblon (literally, ‘love of books’), which has been described as the first-ever book about library management. . .he completed it shorty before his death in 1345.”
Flatulent Demons? “Dante Alighieri. . .is best remembered for the epic poem about heaven, hell, damnation, purgatory and salvation called The Divine Comedy. . .It is not a comedy, because it is not funny. . .it might be viewed as the original fantasy trilogy, charting the poet’s journey from hell to purgatory before arriving in heaven. T. S. Eliot, to whom Dante meant a great deal, said of Dante’s work that genuine poetry is able to communicate before it is understood. Rumour has it that Dante taught his cat to hold a candle up for him in its paw while he was eating or reading.”
And . . .there is so much more: The First Autobiography (a manuscript found by “William Erdeswick, a lieutenant-colonel, found in a cupboard in his house in Chesterfield. . .a book first transcribed in the 1430s written by Margery Kempe;” “The discovery by an Italian librarian during the fifteenth century of Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura” was the spark that began the Italian Renaissance (according to literary historian Stephen Greenblatt); “Rabeliais, who wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel gave us two popular adjectives. . .gargantuan. . .and panurgic. . .”
There are more tales, more improbable but true connections, that Tearle deftly reveals and magically weaves into a cohesive whole. This is the book you keep in your carryall, in the car, by your beside table; pick it up at any point and you will be amazed at just what you can learn.
The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tearle. Photo Courtesy of Amazon.
The Iliad. Wikimedia Commons, attribution: Pete unseth, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Johannes Kepler, Somnium. Courtesy Amazon.com.
The first page of Richard De Bury’s Philobiblon. Wikimedia Commons, attribution. Richard de Bury (Life time: 1287-1345), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Portable Dante. Photo courtesy of Amazon.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.