The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux
Below please find a few additional comments on selected titles and authors in Bill Cotter’s “The Gentleman’s Library: A Nowaday Redux” (June 2012). The examples below represent roughly 5 percent of the entire library.
AL-KHANSA. The authors of Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999 report that in the late seventh century, a male poet said to Al-Khansa: “If Abu Basir had not already recited to me, I would have said that you are the greatest poet of the Arabs. Go, for you are the greatest poet among those with breasts.” Al-Khansa replied, “I’m the greatest poet among those with testicles, too.”
AL-MASRI, Abu Khabbab. This bomb-making handbook, in which Al Qaeda had many hands, appeared on the internet in English in 2011, and is the most recently published book in the library. Prior, it was circulated privately in Arabic among nascent terrorists and their tutors.
AL NAFIS, Ibn. Arguably the library’s most diversely qualified book, Theologus autodidactus (1268) was the first apocalyptic sci-fi novel, the first theological novel, the first substantive philosophical novel, an early bildungsroman, and the first desert-island story.
ANONYMOUS. The ugliest book on the list. Hitler used the “facts” reported in The Jewish Programme to Conquer the World, better known by the title Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), to justify his genocide of the Jews.
AQUINAS, Thomas. The Summa theologica collects and explains all the main tenets of the church, recasts them all in the light of Aristotle, Maimonides, and Avicenna, salts with five ontological arguments, and, voilà, modern Western philosophy is born.
ARMAH, Ayi Kwei. Set in 1965–66, the year before Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted from power (with the help of the CIA? Probably!), The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born follows an unnamed protagonist as he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the rampant corruption in his country. Mandatory reading in many Ghanaian secondary schools.
BARBIN, Herculine. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite. Written in the 1850s–60s, but not published until its rediscovery in a French archive by Michel Foucault while researching his History of Sexuality, Barbin’s memoir of male-pseudohermaphroditism is the only document of its kind. He (a Paris court proceeding condemned him to manship) committed suicide in 1868.
BEAUVOIR, Simone de. Le deuxième sexe was banned by the Vatican in its final edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in 1948. (Granted, so were four thousand other books, Mein Kampf not being one of them.)
BHARATA. Natyashastra, or The Treatise of the Theater (100 BCE-300 CE) is the first Indian work on dramatic theory, and an analogue to Aristotle’s work on the subject, The Poetics (circa 350 BCE).
BJØRNEBOE, Jens. English titles: Moment of Freedom (1966), Powderhouse (1969), and The Silence (1973). 2.5 percent of the authors in JB’s library committed suicide, Bjørneboe among them. The others, randomly ordered: Hart Crane, Reinaldo Arenas, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sadegh Hedayat, Hunter S. Thompson, Primo Levi, Yukio Mishima, John Kennedy Toole, Petronius Arbiter, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Celan, Lucan, Qu Yuan, Marina Tsvetaeva, Abbie Hoffman, Alan Turing, Walter Benjamin, Meriwether Lewis, Socrates, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Herculine Adélaîde Barbin, and Lao She. There are probably others.
BLACKSTONE, William. Simply called Blackstone by those in the know, like law-school librarians, who answered as such when I queried them about the most important work in all of post-medieval law.
BLOCH, Ivan. Bloch’s 1897, six-volume analysis of warfare concluded that armed conflict would never again solve diplomatic problems, that it would simply lead to mutually devastating stalemates. Some of his predictions about war and politics have shown themselves to be uncannily precise.
BLUME, Judy. A favorite of book-banners everywhere.
The Book of Mormon. The bible of the Latter-day Saint movement. Adherents believe that the work, published in 1830, was translated by Joseph Smith, Jr. from much older sacred texts; critics believe Smith wrote it himself. Either way, it is holy writ for over fourteen million believers.
BÖSCHE, Susanne. Jenny Lives with Erik and Martin (1981; English translation 1983) was the first children’s book to address homosexuality.
BURTON, Robert. This has something for everyone, and, at the same time, is quite unclassifiable. Is it psychiatry? Lit crit? History, autobiography, trivia, reference, philosophy? I don’t know. I was hoping JB might buy a superb, $25,000 first edition (1623) as a Christmas present to himself, but Santa said no.
CAVENDISH, Margaret. Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), is also the first utopian novel by a woman (probably).
CHURCHILL, Winston. A six-volume memoir bobbed to one, the editing process administered by Churchill himself. The man wrote an awful lot of books, but it is The Second World War that is most often collocated with his Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in 1953.
CLELAND, John. The first English pornographic novel, published in two installments in 1748 and 1749. Some will find it diverting, others instructive.
Codex dresdensis. This Mayan manuscript dates from the thirteenth century, and is considered the oldest work of literature of the New World.
COPERNICUS, Nicolaus. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) was the first major testimonial of a heliocentric universe, a notion at odds with that embraced by the Church, Ptolemy’s prevailing geocentrism. Mayhem ensued. De Rev, as it is known among librarians, collectors, and those unable to pronounce the full title, is one of the most desirable and expensive of all scientific rarities.
CRUZ, Sor Juana Inés de la. She, along with Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza, forms the bedrock of all Mexican literature.
DARGER, Henry. The Story of the Vivian Girls was probably never meant to be seen by anyone but its author, a severely mentally ill recluse who also happened to be greatest of all outsider artists. The American Folk Art Museum, owner of the 15,145-page manuscript novel (plus three volumes of illustrations) has, understandably, not yet published it in its entirety. JB’s library owns a copy of the next best thing: In the Realms of the Unreal, an illustrated biography and critical study of the artist.
Domesday Book. Basically an accounting of all the land that William the Conqueror Conquered. I expect it will be one of the less-exciting reads in JB’s library.
FEINBERG, Leslie. A monument of LGBTQ literature, and, along with Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country (1992), one of the earliest novels featuring a transgender protagonist.
Gesar Epic. This freight train of literature is of course represented in the library by a drastic breviate.
GANJAVI, Nizami. Layla and Majnun is a Persian love story—no, the Persian love story, often compared to Romeo and Juliet, but written four centuries earlier.
Golden History of the Mongols. Mongγol-un niγuca tobčiyan. The only contemporary account of Genghis Khan.
GREGORY OF TOURS. The Ten Books of Histories is the first and last contemporary word on the history of the Merovingians.
HALL, Radclyffe. This 1928 novel of female “sexual inversion” (as homosexuality is called in the text), and Sappho’s poems twenty-five centuries prior, are the principal works of lesbian literature in the library.
HAMMON, Briton. The first American slave narrative.
HERODOTUS. The Histories is the only account of the wars between Greece and Persia, and the Persian Empire in general, in the fifth century BCE.
HERSH, Seymour. Largely responsible for turning public opinion against the war in Vietnam.
JOYCE, James. Finnegans Wake. The only work in the library with a misspelled title (it’s not really—Wake is a verb here—but it looks misspelled). Another work’s title is wholly unknown, as it is in an unknown language: The Voynich Manuscript. Its enigmatic crypsis and otherworldly botanical drawings have stumped scholars and linguists for half a millennium.
JUNG, Karl. Jung finished The Red Book, a massive illuminated manuscript that he considered his most important work, in 1930. He never showed it to anyone, nor did his heirs, until 2001.
LEON, Moses de. Book of Splendor, as it is sometimes translated, is the essential text of Kabbalah. Moses de Leon attributes it to a second-century rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai.
LENIN, Vladimir. In 1902, Lenin was inspired enough by Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 What is to be done? (also included in JB’s library) to steal its title for one of his best-known pamphlets, which was later responsible (in part) for fractioning the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
Manden Charter. This thirteenth-century charter was the Mali Empire’s constitution, a document preserved by oral tradition until the present day. It contains the world’s earliest bill of human rights.
MAO Zedong. The Little Red Book is, apart from the Bible, the best-selling book of all time.
NASRIN, Taslima. Many taka have been pledged by fundamentalist groups to anyone who beheads Nasrin, a Bangladeshi author often critical of Islam (and all organized religion). She has been exiled, attacked, threatened, and placed under house arrest countless times since 1993, the year Lajja was published.
The Oxford English Dictionary. Twenty volumes squeezed into a single, unabridged work as thick and heavy as a lithographic stone. Comes with a magnifying glass. With the possible exception of the Yonglè Encyclopedia, the OED, more than a century in the making, is mankind’s greatest work of scholarship. The third edition is scheduled for completion in 2037.
PAI Hsien-Yung. Crystal Boys, a 1983 Taiwanese novel about gay runaways living communally in a Taipei cruise park in the 1960s. (If that sounds to you like a taboo subject for its time and place, you would be correct). Later found huge audiences in France, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Italy, and China.
PRINCE, Lucy Terry. The first known work of literature by an African American, 1746. It is not about a bar fight.
RUMI. Bindings of Rumi’s poetry are always red, an eight-hundred-year-old bibliopegic tradition.
SERVET, Miguel. Though Servet was burned at the stake for the noisome blares of heresy contained in The Restoration of Christianity (1553), the book is also important for its medical content: It is the first description in the West of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, some seventy-five years before William Harvey’s De motu cordis.
SHANNON, C. E. A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The herald of information theory.
SPINOZA, Baruch. I don’t really even understand summaries of this book, but it has a reputation for being wicked important.
SPRENGER, Jakob. This 1487 handbook of juridical misogyny resulted in at least one hundred thousand documented witch trials, some half of which ended in execution. 75 percent of the condemned were women.
TACITUS, Gaius Cornelius. Hitler vested Tacitus’s ethnography of the Germanic peoples with the authority to justify his expansion the Third Reich and its ideologies. Historian Arnaldo Momigliano, in an address to a group of classicists in 1954, denounced the book as one of the most dangerous ever written.
The Tale of the Sinuhe. It’s the Egyptian Hamlet, according to Egyptologist Edmund Meltzer, except it’s 3,600 years older. And a poem.
Talmud. There is no complete critical edition of the Talmud, a fundamental Jewish text of various discourses among rabbis on, among other things, the theology, laws, and philosophy of Judaism. No complete English translation exists either; JB’s library has instead settled for a substantial volume containing key passages and a history of the massive work’s genesis in the second to fifth centuries.
TS’AO Hsueh-Chin. Scholarship of the Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the Chinese Four Great Classical Novels, has its own word: Redology.
ULFELDT, Leonora Christina. Ulfeldt wrote A Memory of Lament during her twenty-two years’ imprisonment in a Danish royal dungeon in the seventeenth century. For the first seven years, she made her ink from candle soot and wrote on contraband scraps of paper. She was eventually freed. Her diaries were not published until 1869.
Utenzi: Utendi Wa Tambuka. Journey to the West (sixteenth century) is, like The Dream of the Red Chamber (eighteenth century), one of the Four Great Chinese Classical Novels. The other two are The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, both fourteenth century. All are in the library, and all are really, really long.
This appendix can be found at believermag.com/library.