In the tradition of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, a vividly rendered account of the forgotten quest by Christopher Columbus’s son to create the greatest library in the world—“a perfectly pitched poetic drama” (Financial Times) and an amazing tour through 16th century Europe.
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books tells the story of the first and greatest visionary of the print age, a man who saw how the explosive expansion of knowledge and information generated by the advent of the printing press would entirely change the landscape of thought and society. He also happened to be Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son.
At the peak of the Age of Exploration, while his father sailed across the ocean to explore the boundaries of the known world, Hernando Colón sought to surpass Columbus’s achievements by building a library that would encompass the world and include “all books, in all languages and on all subjects.” In service of this vision, he spent his life travelling—first to the New World with his father in 1502, surviving through shipwreck and a bloody mutiny off the coast of Jamaica, and later, throughout Europe, scouring the bookstores of the day at the epicenter of printing. The very model of a Renaissance man, Hernando restlessly and obsessively bought thousands and thousands of books, amassing a collection based on the modern conviction that a truly great library should include the kind of material dismissed as ephemeral trash: ballads, pornography, newsletters, popular images, romances, fables. Using an invented system of hieroglyphs, he meticulously catalogued every item in his library, devising the first ever search engine for his rich profusion of books and images and music. A major setback in 1522 gave way to the creation of Hernando’s Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books and inspired further refinements to his library, including a design for the first modern bookshelves.
In this illuminating and brilliantly researched biography, Edward Wilson-Lee tells an enthralling story of the life and times of the first genius of the print age, a tale with striking lessons for our own modern experiences of information revolution and globalization.
Edward Wilson-Lee is a Fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he teaches medieval and Renaissance literature. His research focuses on books, libraries, and travel, which during this project has involved journeys to and through Spain, Italy, India, and the Caribbean. He is the author of Shakespeare in Swahililand and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.
“Like a Renaissance wonder-cabinet, full of surprises and opening up into a lost world.” —Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve
“Now I can tell everyone in tweetlandia: READ THIS TRANSPORTING BOOK. Take it to the beach, to the countryside wherever – and thank you Edward Wilson-Lee for writing it, and with such a sense of vital grace.” —Simon Schama
“Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating and beautifully written account of how Hernando conceived and assembled his library is set within a highly original biography of the compiler. It’s a work of imagination restrained by respect for evidence, of brilliance suitably alloyed by erudition, and of scholarship enlivened by sensitivity and acuity.” —Felipe Fernández-Armesto,The Literary Review
“Hernando Columbus deserves to be as famous as his father, Christopher. …Wilson-Lee’s greatest strength is the subtlety with which Hernando’s public life as a courtier and his private life as a collector are interwoven. Unless you like libraries a lot then the most important thing about Hernando is not the most interesting. But in these elegantly handled parallels, Wilson-Lee leads us almost by stealth to an understanding of his subject’s greatest achievement.” —The Spectator
“A wonderful book, not least in the literal sense of an epic unfolding in a nonstop procession of marvels, ordeals and apparitions... The true measure of Wilson-Lee’s accomplishment, delivered in a simile-studded prose that is seldom less than elegant and often quite beautiful, is to make Hernando’s epic, measured in library shelves, not nautical miles, every bit as thrilling as his father’s story.” —Financial Times
“Wilson-Lee’s book – the first modern biography of Hernando written in English – is far more than just a straight account of a life, albeit a rich one… moving… Wilson-Lee does a fine job of capturing the intellectual excitement of a moment in European history.” —The New Statesman
“An elegantly written, absorbing portrait of a visionary man and his age.” —Kirkus, starred review
“Astonishing for both its geographic and intellectual breadth… A potent reminder that a great library originates as a bold adventure.” —Booklist, starred review
“[Edward Wilson-Lee] has created a cabinet of wonders with this book… Wilson-Lee’s fascinating account brings back to wholeness ‘the largest private library of the day’ while revealing the son of a renowned man as, among other things, a master librarian.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“At once an adventure tale and a history of ideas that continue to resonate…Wilson-Lee’s insightful and entertaining work refreshes the memory of Colón’s sweeping vision.” —BookPage, starred review