Cricketer's guide to insect music: Russell Ash pays tribute to the author of 'Was Oderic of Pordenone Ever in Tibet?' and 100 other classics

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The Independent Culture
THIS YEAR marks the 60th anniversary of the death (and, incidentally, the 120th anniversary of the birth) of the distinguished American scholar Berthold Laufer, author of more than 100 remarkable books. Frankly, I had never heard of him until I stumbled upon him in the catalogues of the British Library - but one needs venture no further than their pages to piece together some fragments of the life of this amazing polymath.

Before the 19th century was out, Laufer had published his enigmatically titled Petroglyphs on the Amoor, and in the ensuing decade or so followed it with a handful of fairly conventional works such as Confucius and his Portraits, a history of finger-prints, Arabic and Chinese Trade in Walrus and Natural Ivory - all routine stuff. In 1913, however, he got into his stride when he turned his gaze to the mysterious land of Tibet. The result was his extraordinary book, The Tibetan Sexagenary Cycle, published by E J Brill of Leiden, presumably to get round the strict American laws relating to pornography about oriental sex aids.

The following year - his youthful energies perhaps exhausted by pedalling his erotic bicycle up and down the Himalayas - he published his relatively low-key Three Tokhavian Bagatelles as well as Bird Divination Among the Tibetans and his deeply searching Was Oderic of Pordenone Ever in Tibet? Why Laufer wanted to know was never explained - at least, not in the catalogue I looked at. Maybe Oderic had pinched a divine bird whom young Berthold fancied, or possibly he suspected him of stealing his Tibetan sex machine. Whether or not he ever caught up with Oderic also remains a mystery.

Also in 1914, presumably urged by his publishers for an instant Christmas bestseller, Laufer cranked out his clearly opportunistic The Tibetan Sexagenary Cycle Once More (or Sex Bikes II, as it is known among collectors). He then directed his attentions to the frozen north and in 1915 came up with The Eskimo Screw as a Culture-Historical Problem, about which perhaps the less said the better.

But his heart was still in the East, and 1923 saw the publication of Oriental Theatricals (presumably on the ancient Chinese art of losing your rag) and Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet - a grisly work, but as ever Laufer filled a yawning lacuna with it. The academic community was still reeling from its impact before he hit it with his deceptively simple Chinese Baskets. A vituperative attack on the Chinese, or a do-it-yourself manual? We may never know (unless we look at the book, that is). This was, however, no more than a potboiler in comparison with his magnum opus, Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times, regarded by many as the definitive work on the topic.

In 1927 Laufer's Insect Musicians and Cricket Champions of China was a landmark in the coupling of such seemingly discordant subjects as entymomusicology and oriental sportsmen in one book, and may even have settled the question of how the bowling technique known as a 'Chinaman' came to be so called.

Berthold Laufer's novelty Christmas book in 1928 was a slim volume on The Giraffe in History and Art. Among his last books was the searing expose, Felt: How it was Made and Used in Ancient Times, and his blockbuster Geophagy - possibly the only book ever published on earth-eating.

Laufer's American Plant Migration, which perhaps contained insights into the extraordinary tendency of the Giant Sequoia to travel south for the winter, was published posthumously.

Tibetan bones, bikes and birds; bad-tempered Chinese baskets and cricketers; giraffes and felt - not to mention unmentionable Eskimo problems: just a fraction of an output that would shame most contemporary academics. What a stimulating teacher he must have been: just imagine his bounding into a seminar with, 'I've got this great idea for a book on egg-cups - ancient Mesopotamian ostrich egg-cups]'

I am loath to sully my mental image of Berthold Laufer the man by actually looking at one of his books. The titles alone in this brief bibliographical resume are sufficient salute to his towering genius utterly to refute those of you who might judge him superficially and conclude that he was nothing short of a Grade A loon.

The names and book titles in this article have not been altered.

(Photograph omitted)