By day, 63-year-old Michele Santelia, from the small Italian city of Campobasso, works as an accountant. By night, he pursues his favourite hobby, which also involves tapping away at a computer.
Mr Santelia holds the world record for the most books typed backwards (81), however, this is one of those rare occasions where his record title doesn’t actually capture the most impressive part of what he does.
You see, not only does Michele type books backwards, but he types them using four completely blank keyboards simultaneously, and without ever looking up at the screen to double check his work.
And as if that doesn’t already sound difficult enough, he types each book in its original language, whether it be Hieroglyphs, Old Hebrew, Traditional Chinese, Mayan, Etruscan, Cuneiform, or Voynich glyphs.
Among his backwards-typed books are: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Code of Hammurabi, the Bible, all of Leonardo’s writings, and Guinness World Records 2002.
For the purpose of this record, the books must be typed using ‘mirror writing’, such that the result is the mirror image of any given language’s normal writing.
Of course, regular keyboards don’t have mirrored keys, so Michele had to custom configure his own. He types using four keyboards at once which, as previously mentioned, have completely blank keys.
Before he starts writing a book, he binds each key to a different mirrored letter of whichever alphabet he’s using.
Michele discovered his ability to “easily type backwards” over 30 years ago, in 1992, and he has been obsessed ever since.
“In fact I am able to type using 16 computer keyboards simultaneously located at different heights,” he revealed.
Michele cites Leonardo da Vinci as the inspiration behind his decision to pursue mirror typing.
Over 500 years before Mr Santelia was born, Leonardo became one of the world’s first known practitioners of mirror writing. It’s thought that he did this – in addition to writing in a special kind of shorthand - to make it harder for people to read his notes. However, an alternate reason is simply that he did it to avoid smudging the ink, as he was left-handed.
“It is to his enlightened mind that I, with great humility, attempt to compare [myself] in order to try to understand his mysteries, his secrets and ancient virtues!” Michele said.
Michele is of the opinion that “man uses only a small percentage of his faculties,” thus, in an effort to maximize his own usage, he made the decision to master the art of mirror typing.
Michele also offered another reason as to why he practices this peculiar hobby: "I write backwards precisely to challenge a world that paradoxically goes upside down.”
Explaining further, he said, “Ignoble, vile events should no longer exist nowadays, but in some dictatorial or totalitarian countries, there are still wicked dictators who, in order to hold power, also kill defenceless people […]. What cowardice!”
After typing each book in its entirety, Michele prints the text onto large pages, which are then bound in a beautifully-adorned cover.
Over the years, Michele has gifted several of his books to prominent public figures, such as former US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama; Popes Johannes Paul II and Benedict XVI; and former Italian presidents Carlo Ciampi and Giorgio Napolitano.
Michele’s latest book, Das Nibelungenlied Backwards, a medieval German heroic epic, was typed in 2022. Michele dedicated it to “the disabled people of the whole world; to all those who suffer daily in a bigoted and clumsy society.”
The largest book (in terms of page size) Michele wrote backwards is the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, one of mankind’s oldest known documents, dating back 5500 years. Comprised of 610 huge pages, Michele's version weighs 78.8 kg.
Some works are a huge undertaking for Michele. For example, when writing Opere Maya (translation: Works of the Mayans) Backwards, Michele designed the font himself, “with all the letters and all the numbers” adapted from a “pre-existing but very limited” sample.
“In fact, Opere Maya Backwards is numbered according to Mayan numbering, in twentieths. For this reason I can also write and do calculations in the Mayan language,” he said.
Michele has also typed a book using special characters resembling an “alien alphabet”, titled In the company of UFOs Backwards.
Comprised of 662 transparent pages, the book is housed in a structure designed to look like an extra-terrestrial spacecraft.
Michele dedicated this book to Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at Cambridge University, who was abducted and tortured to death in Egypt in 2016.
Michele has also typed all four Indian Vedas backwards and compiled them into a single book, which, according to him, has a unique characteristic: “A very peculiar thing about this work is the fact that, besides being very beautiful from the aesthetic point of view, it automatically releases a very sweet fragrance of Indian sandal, which makes it even more mysterious and fascinating.”
Across all 81 books, Michele has typed 4,593,552 words in total. Altogether, the books weigh 1,236 kg (2,724 lb), and they tower over Michele when stacked atop one another.
“I like to call it ‘The Tower of Babel Backwards.'" - Michele Santelia
“While the biblical Tower of Babel represents confusion, mine is written in languages from around the world, but in reverse. It is therefore the allusion to a return, precisely backwards in an idyllic world, where there is no longer unprecedented violence, false ideologies, horrendous crimes, unspeakable evil, absurd power and political games!”
Being a Guinness World Records title holder means a lot to Michele - he was first awarded his record in 2007 and has continued breaking it each year by typing new books.
He hopes that other people too will now be inspired take on the challenge of writing backwards.
Perhaps in a few years, his tower will actually be tall enough to pierce the clouds, just as the biblical Tower of Babel was intended to.