This impeccably researched and “adventure-packed” (The Washington Post) account of the obsessive quest by Christopher Columbus’s son to create the greatest library in the world is “the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters” (NPR) and offers a vivid picture of Europe on the verge of becoming modern.
At the peak of the Age of Exploration, Hernando Colón sailed with his father Christopher 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, 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; really, the first ever database for the exploding diversity of written matter as the printing press proliferated across Europe. Hernando traveled extensively 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: ballads, erotica, news pamphlets, almanacs, popular images, romances, fables. The loss of part of his collection to another maritime disaster in 1522, set off the final scramble to complete this sublime project, a race against time to realize a vision of near-impossible perfection.
“Magnificent…a thrill on almost every page” (The New York Times Book Review), The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is a window into sixteenth-century Europe’s information revolution, and a reflection of the passion and intrigues that lie beneath our own insatiable desires to bring order to the world today.
Wilson-Lee, a scholar of late medieval and early modern literatures as well as the history of print and libraries, has created a cabinet of wonders with this book. It encompasses the biographies of Christopher Columbus (1451 1506) and his son Hernando (1488 1539) and the saga of an extraordinary library "that would collect everything." As a child, Hernando served the court as a page; at 13, he was a crew member on Columbus's fourth voyage; as a young man, he ventured briefly in his father's New World domain; and he was his father's biographer. Wilson-Lee also brings to rich life the cultural milieu of the age the rituals of court life and the political intrigues during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. But most of all, this is a biography of a library: having inherited his father's collection, Hernando made it his mission to acquire every printed thing he could, traveling all over Europe to acquire 15,000 20,000 printed materials, including some images and music. The ravages of inheritance disputes and time has reduced the remaining number of items to less than 400. 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. Illus.