Blog this: Lost books
Posted by joeabbott on October 8, 2011
When I lose a book it’s usually at work, left on a seat on the bus, or somewhere in the house. And it most likely wouldn’t garner the attention of the Smithsonian’s Megan Gambino, who is more intent on discussing books that shall never be found or can never be completed. Such is the case for her The Top 10 Books Lost to Time published in the September 2011 edition of Smithsonian.com.
I think this article partly caught my eye on the strength of the title: “lost to time” has an Indiana Jones-esque sort of feel of romantic adventure. And, partly, it was the promise of a list of unbearable loss of world treasures. What knowledge would we find if we could roam the halls of the Library at Alexandria prior to Caesar’s burning them down?
But, the list, I found, far more prosaic, including works mostly by Western authors and while it would be interesting to peruse all of these, I have a hard time putting them in the Top 10 list. But, bully for the Smithsonian and Ms. Gambino for putting together such a list! I appreciate the imagination behind this endeavor so I’ll recreate their list here.
- Homer, Margites
- Author unknown, Lost Books of the Bible
- Shakespeare, Cardenio
- Author unknown, Inventio Fortunata
- Austen, Sanditon
- Melville, The Isle of the Cross
- Hardy, The Poor Man and Lady
- Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (first draft)
- Hemingway, untitled
- Plath, Double Exposure
I can’t comment on most of these without merely reproducing the Smithsonian’s article, but I will call out a couple I found noteworthy.
Homer’s Margites and Shakespeare’s Cardenio are great examples of books that should be in the list. Homer’s lost tome, it was said by Aristotle:
[Homer] was the first to indicate the forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites bears the same relationship to comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies.
Ouch … tough loss.
And the justification for Cardenio is exemplary. Noting the play most likely is an exploration of a scene from Cervante’s Don Quixote (and with Shakespeare being an Englishman and Cervantes a contemporary Spaniard), novelist Stephen Marche said:
… the work would be a direct link between the founder of the modern novel and the greatest playwright of all time, a connection between the Spanish and British literary traditions at their sources, and a meeting of the grandest expressions of competing colonial powers.
Now that would make for an interesting exploration.
Other offerings in the list fare more poorly in rationale for being in the Top 10 list. Plath’s book is include, as best I can tell, because it would be fun or interesting to read the novel that was unfinished at the time of her death. Hardy’s book, as well, was included because the author deemed it “the most original thing he had written” … and yet, Hardy was unable to recall details such as whether the two protagonists in the story ended up as a couple. Meh.
Melville’s, Stevenson’s, and Hemingway’s lost books also show up because they’d be fun to read, but with slightly deeper reasoning. The Isle of the Cross was based on a true story but the novel was rejected by Melville’s publisher (now what was the basis for the rejection?); Stevenson’s first draft of Jekyll/Hyde was panned as rubbish by his wife (oooh, would we agree?); and Hemingway’s autobiographically-based novel on WWI, lost by his wife, was, he said, rationale for divorcing her (and, as he had four wives, I guess it didn’t take much or he was losing a lot of manuscripts in his day).
So the list, to my eye, is a bit lightweight but reading the short Smithsonian article (link above) was certain great fun. I am far too ill-read to try my hand at my own list but my imagination was fired by Ms. Gambino’s inclusion of Inventio Fortunata, an account by an unnamed 14th century Franciscan monk who claimed to travel to the North Pole. His direct account is lost, but no less a cartographic authority than Gerard Mercator copied the verbatim quote from Inventio Fortunata in a letter to a colleague:
In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone.”
Now that would be an interesting work to read. Pity it was lost.