It’s the time of year when literary critics tote up the outstanding reads of the previous year, as well as some of the failures. I’m never into ranking books, though I might at some point on this site share a few of those that really knocked me out in recent months. For now, I thought I’d recommend — strongly recommend — something you won’t find on any of the 2013 best books lists. Yet there’s nothing else remotely as charming as a title issued in 1869 in London under the byline of one J.C. Hotten.
The Book of Wonderful Characters, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Remarkable and Eccentric Persons in All Ages and Countries, now digitized, was the fruit of many years of enterprise for Hotten, who had begun publishing illustrated books about remarkable persons in 1788 and continued through the early decades of the nineteenth century.
More than 40 years after his death this volume was republished. Engravings illustrate some truly amazing characters, like a woman who lived upon the smell of flowers and a man who died at the age of 152.
Hotten begins “With a few Words upon Pig-faced Ladies,” then goes on to an “extraordinary Stone Eater” with a detour for fire eaters and knife swallowers. I think you might be glad to make the acquaintance of the Vain Dwarf or the Man Who Crucified Himself. Or a particularly creepy ghost.
We all still like to creep out, I think, we just do it via TV and movies rather than encyclopedic illustrated weirdfests. Maybe some genius will rise to the occasion and we’ll see a book like this in 2014.