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Biggest, Smallest, Most Expensive: 8 Record-Breaking Books

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Despite the constant predictions that e-books are set to kill traditional publishing, our love affair with the humble print book continues. Books have captured our imagination for centuries, leading to no shortage of record-breakers. Whether it's the longest, smallest, or most valuable, here is a small library of book superlatives:

1. MOST EXPENSIVE BOOK IN THE WORLD

Philippe Kurlapski via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Forbes, Bill Gates owns the most expensive book ever sold. In 1994, Gates paid an astonishing $30.8 million (accounting for inflation, that would be roughly $49.4 million today) for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. This original hand-drawn manuscript, compiled between 1506 and 1510 by the Renaissance polymath and artist, is one of only 20 notebooks by da Vinci still in existence. The Codex contains sketches, notes, and ideas, all transcribed in his special right-to-left “mirror writing."

2. MOST VALUABLE BOOK IN THE WORLD

NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) via Wikimedia Comons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Gutenberg Bible is probably the most valuable book (or type of book) in the world. It was the first book to be printed (c.1455) using modern moveable type, a process that revolutionized the book trade (before that, all books had to be meticulously copied by hand or printed with woodblocks, a process that took many months). Only 180 were originally printed, of which 49 survive today; of these, only 21 are complete. Nearly all Gutenberg Bibles are owned by museums, libraries, or institutions, but such is their rarity and value that if one were to come up for auction on the open market it would likely fetch many millions of dollars.

3. FIRST BOOK PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES

moped and bangos via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, also known as the Bay Psalm Book, was the first book to be printed in what's now the United States. About 1,700 copies were printed during the 17th century by Pilgrims in Massachusetts, but today only 11 copies are known to exist. In 2013, it also became the most expensive book ever sold at auction, after it was purchased for $14,165,000.

4. LARGEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

Wagaung via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The world’s largest book is not a book in the conventional sense, but a series of huge stone tablets surrounding the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar. The more than 700 marble tablets (each one over 5 feet tall and 3-and-a-half feet wide) tell the story of the tipitaka, the central text of Theravāda Buddhism. When built around 1860, the tablets’ dense writing was filled with golden ink and decorated with precious stones, but unfortunately when the British invaded in the 1880s, the soldiers looted the ink and gems.

The Guinness Book of World Records gives a more standard type of book the record—they say the world’s largest book is a 2012 text on the Prophet Muhammad created in Dubai and measuring an impressive 16.40 ft x 26.44 ft.

5. LONGEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

Madeleine de Scudery via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Going by word count, the longest conventionally published book in the world is generally said to be Artamène,ou le Grand Cyrus (Atarmene or Cyrus the Great) a 17th-century romantic novel by Madeleine de Scudery. The 10-volume work has over 10,000 pages and is 2.1 million words long (to give some context, the famously meaty War and Peace contains only around 560,000 words).

6. SMALLEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

Simon Fraser University via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The world’s smallest book is so very tiny it can only be read using an electron microscope. Teeny Ted from Turnip Town was written by Malcolm Douglas Chaplin and was printed using pure crystalline silicon by his brother, Robert, at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. The 30-page work measures 70 micrometres by 100 micrometres, and is so small it could fit on the width of a human hair.

7. BESTSELLING FICTION BOOK OF ALL TIME

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, is the bestselling novel of all time, moving an incredible 200 million copies worldwide. More recently, E. L. James’ trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey has breached the 100 million copies sold barrier, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide.

8. BESTSELLING BOOK OF ALL TIME

Anonymous (photo by Adrian Pingston) via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It is safe to say that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, as it has been widely estimated to have sold over 5 billion copies. It's also been translated in its entirety into over 394 languages (2123 languages have at least one book from the Bible translated into that language) and has been sold all over the world since the very first book came off the printing presses.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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