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Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee (March 12, 2019 from Scribner)
Back Cover:
In this innovative work of history, Edward Wilson-Lee tells the extraordinary story of Hernando Colón, a singular visionary of the printing press-age who also happened to be Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son.

At the peak of the Age of Exploration, Hernando traveled with Columbus on his final voyage to the New World, a journey that ended in disaster, bloody mutiny, and shipwreck. After Columbus’s death in 1506, the eighteen-year-old Hernando sought to continue—and surpass—his father’s campaign to explore the boundaries of the known world by building a library that would collect everything ever printed: a vast holding organized by summaries and catalogues, the first ever search engine for the exploding diversity of written matter as the printing press proliferated across Europe. Hernando restlessly and obsessively amassed his collection based on the groundbreaking conviction that a library of universal knowledge should include “all books, in all languages and on all subjects,” even material often dismissed as ephemeral trash: ballads, erotica, newsletters, popular images, romances, fables. The loss of part of his collection to another maritime disaster in 1522—documented in his poignant Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—set off the final scramble to complete this sublime project, a race against time to realize a vision of near-impossible perfection.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s account of Hernando’s life is a testimony to the beautiful madness of booklovers, a plunge into sixteenth-century Europe’s information revolution, and a reflection of the passion and intrigues that lie beneath our own attempts to bring order to the world today.

My Review:
I now have a special place in my heart for Hernando Colón. His collections and organizational systems are totally mind-boggling and absolutely fascinating. As a "natural son" (not the product of a legitimate union) Colón could "win legitimacy only by showing himself to be his father's son in spirit." Colón strove to achieve this distinction by accumulating massive amounts of written works, printed images, music, and plants to create a collection that would far surpass any other collection of its time. Colón also kept meticulous details in multiple ledgers and created complex organizational systems. This book dives into some of Colón's collections, examines particular items in the collection, offers insight into why some items were especially important to Colón and analyzes why some were never discussed by the collector. 

This book is very dense and I wouldn't recommend it to the average book lover but if you're ready to go on a deep dig then this is the book for you! 

2 comments

Carmen said...

It sounds fascinating. I find mind-boggling that so many people in centuries past championed ideas that today we take for granted. Goes to show that human enterprise is not confined by eras or individuals. :-)

Judy Krueger said...

Wow!