10 Interesting Facts about Books & Libraries | The World of Momus Podcast

10 Interesting Book related facts which obviously contain few facts about libraries as well.

  1. There are 3 books in Harvard Library that are bound with human skin:

Harvard library confirmed with 99.9 percent certainty, that a book titled Des destinées de l’ame (Destinies of The Soul) written by Arsene Housuay published around 1880 is bound in human skin. The book has been sitting in Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s and has had a note inside it from the donor, who explains that he had the book bound in human skin. This note is in French, translated by Harvard, and it reads:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

The other book he mentions, Séverin Pineau’s De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis, is in the Wellcome Library’s collection. The owner of Des destinées de l’ame is said to have gotten the skin from the back of a female mental patient whose body was unclaimed after dying from a stroke.

Known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin wasn’t actually all that uncommon in the past and dates back to at least the 15th century. People apparently used to have it done to memorialize the dead, among other reasons.

2. Warsaw is the city with the biggest number of libraries per capita – 11.5 libraries per 100,000 citizens:

However, the number of libraries per capita does not necessarily mean books are loaned more.

Tokyo leads with 111.9 million library loans per year, with Shanghai and Hong Kong following close by, scoring 86.2 and 49.8, accordingly. New York takes third place, with 56.3 million loans.

3. The world’s largest fine for an overdue library book stands at $345.14, the amount owed at two cents a day:

In April 1955, Kewanee Public Library, Illinois, USA, Emily Canellos-Simms checked out a poetry book Days and Deeds. Although the book was due back 19 April 1955, Emily found it in her mother´s house 47 years later and presented the library with a check for overdue fines.

4. The first ebook in the world is The Declaration of Independence, released in 1971:

In 1971, technologist and futurist Michael Stern Hart was given access to a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. Inspired by a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, he decided to transcribe it into the computer.

He made the file available to other users of the computer network, with the annotation that it was free to use and distribute – marking the beginning of the legendary Project Gutenberg, an initiative dedicated to making books freely available in digital format.

5. The Japanese language has a word to denote letting reading materials pile up in one’s home and never read them:

That word is – Tsundoku. A term used to describe a person who owns a lot of unread literature.

The word “doku” can be used as a verb to mean “reading”. According to Prof Gerstle from University of London, the “tsun” in “tsundoku” originates in “tsumu” – a word meaning “to pile up”. When put together, “tsundoku” has the meaning of buying reading material and piling it up.

The phrase ‘tsundoku sensei’ appears in text from 1879 according to the writer Mori Senzo, which is likely to be satirical, about a teacher who has lots of books but doesn’t read them.

6. The raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic classic was initially supposed to be… a parrot:

While writing The Raven, Poe fixed on a single word nevermore, to be repeated throughout to anchor the melancholic ambiance, but he needed a pretext for that word.

Since it would not as apt coming out of a mouth of a human, and when thinking of a non reasoning creature repeating this word – his first thought was of a parrot. But luckily for him and the poem, he rejected the idea and chose instead a Raven, infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone and also forming the title of it thereafter. Imagine that … if it would have been parrot.

7.  John Steinbeck’s dog ate the original manuscript for Of Mice and Men – ok now that is interesting. Let’s explore that shall we:

Before the age of computers and what have you, manuscripts faced the elemental dangers, of fire, flooding and so on. Or in Steinbeck’s case, his dog actually eating his homework.

In a May 27 letter to his editor, Elizabeth Otis, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, the then 34 year old John Steinbeck writes and I read relevant excerpts from it:

Minor tragedy stalked. I don’t know whether I told you. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript, I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter. But there’s the work to do over from the start. I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft. I have promoted Toby-dog to be a lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature.

8. There are “human libraries” around the world where you can check-out humans as a living book and listen to their unique life stories:

The Human Library is an international organization and movement that first started in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000. It aims to address people’s prejudices by helping them to talk to those they would not normally meet. The organisation uses a library analogy of lending people rather than books. These people have “experienced prejudice, social exclusion or stigma,” and participants can ask them questions so as to “learn about the other person and also challenge their own prejudices.” The Human Library Organization is active in over 80 countries, in which there are a few permanent Human Libraries but most happen as events.

9. Ok let’s talk about the 3 most famous libraries in the world, The New York Public Library, National Library of China and British Library in London:

So, the New York Library gets 17.3 million visitors per year. And it has around 53 million items in 92 locations within the library. It is the third largest library in the world. It’s most famous inhouse location is the Main Branch, which is easily recognizable by the two lion statues named Patience and Fortitude guarding its entrance.

Largest in Asia, the National Library of China situation in Beijing, prides itself for having the most impressive collection of Chinese literature and historical documents in the world. It gets 5 million visitors per year and has over 37 million items.

Founded in 1909 by the government of the Qing dynasty, the library stores an abundance of old maps, diagrams, and rubbings from ancient inscriptions – such as the precious copies of Buddhist sutras that date back to the 6th century.

Estimated to contain almost 200 million items, British Library in London, is the largest national library in the world by the number of items catalogued. It gets about 170-200 million visitors per year. Which is the most visitors out of both those libraries considering in mind also the fact that the population of this location is significantly lower than previous both.

Some of the most interesting items in the collection include:

  • Two 1215 copies of Magna Carta
  • Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book (printed in 868)
  • The Gutenberg Bible, earliest printed book in Europe
  • Mozart’s musical diary
  • Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
  • The Beatles’ handwritten song lyric

10. The first-ever “Harry Potter” was a short story published in communist Poland in 1972:

A short story titled “Harry Potter” was published in a communist Poland, on March 19, 1972, in a literary magazine Życie Literackie. Its author, Jan Rostworowski was a Polish poet and short story writer. In 1940, as a soldier of the Polish Army, he came to Great Britain, where he spent twenty-eight years.

Rostworowski’s text published 25 years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone tells a story of a seventeen-year-old Harry Potter who, unlike J.K. Rowling’s protagonist, does not receive his Hogwarts letter.

In fact, his life is rather ordinary – as a shopkeeper, he delivers the original Cracovian sausage and pickles. He is not quite talkative, as he replies mostly with “Oh yeah” and “Oh no.” In the end – he suddenly vanishes.

Bogusław Rostworowski, the son of Jan Rostworowski, explained that the story was, in fact, the poet’s memory from times when he used to deliver meat to an English shop. The character of Harry Potter was to depict the shop owner. Rostworowski made the name up – however, it is important to highlight that the surname “Potter” was rather popular in England at that time.

Apart from the name of the protagonist, the only similarities to J.K. Rowling’s works which can be found in the Polish text are two passages. One of them is: “The telephone in Harry’s house does not ring, but chirps like a bird” – which for the Potterheads might resemble magical carrier owls. The other is that the narrator casts a curse on “Mr. P.” Apart from that – the texts are not at all alike.