The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

It is difficult to imagine a figure more famous than Christopher Columbus, whose Atlantic voyages changed the course of history. Far less familiar is the story of his son, the great librarian Hernando, who has long lived in his father’s shadow. In the superb biography “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” Edward Wilson-Lee, who teaches English literature at Cambridge, throws light on Hernando’s astounding accomplishments, giving us a man no less boldly visionary than his father but with a “genius for ordering.”

Hernando was a “natural son,” born out of wedlock—a precarious position for an heir, though Columbus would eventually name him, along with his brother Diego, mis hijos legítimos, legitimate sons. As a boy in the Spanish courts of the crown prince and Queen Isabella, Hernando showed promise as a list-maker extraordinaire with an eagerly organizational mind, making catalogs, encyclopedias, inventories and logbooks. He was already investigating methods whereby he later “tamed a wilderness of miscellaneity through the magic of lists,” Mr. Wilson-Lee writes, adopting “the tools used by bankers and employing their accounting techniques.”

Existing libraries, such as the Vatican’s, acquired only weighty works in Greek and Latin. Hernando’s compulsion to collect “gloriously failed to exclude things most people thought unimportant.” His universal vision encompassed prints (not generally collected at the time), music and books in many languages on every topic. Chaldean and Arabic works shared shelves with German and French ones in a library “open to all books in all subjects from within Christendom and without,” as Hernando envisioned a library that would be “universal in a sense never before imagined.”

. . . .

Hernando mimicked his father’s journeys as he restlessly crisscrossed Renaissance Europe in pursuit of ever more books. On a single visit to Venice, he acquired no fewer than 1,637 titles, leaving instructions for them to be shipped back to Spain while he continued on his book-buying spree north of the Alps. Only upon return home did he learn that the books he had bought in Venice were resting at the bottom of the Bay of Naples. Though the books were lost, their titles remained. Hernando, determined to find all of them again, dubbed the vanished trove his “catalogue of shipwrecked books.”

Why was Hernando’s library important? He understood, as no one else did at the time, that a library cannot exist in “one perfect state” but is a “growing, organic thing,” “a form of the world in miniature,” as Mr. Wilson-Lee puts it. He tried and abandoned a number of methods of organizing his astonishing collections before creating a set of hieroglyphs, or “biblioglyphs,” that harnessed geometric forms to express everything from a book’s size to an author’s use of a pseudonym. His “Book of Epitomes” was an effort to distill the contents of each volume, making the library more easily searchable. He also began work on a “Book of Materials,” in which he intended to further illuminate the library’s contents, explaining that “a single thing might be referred to in many different ways.” With these aids, Mr. Wilson-Lee suggests, “Hernando had created a search engine.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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