Edward Wilson-Lee – The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library

Edward Wilson-Lee – The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library

Christopher Columbus was not the only interesting person in his family. His son Hernando was also both accomplished and flawed. He also assembled what was probably the world’s largest library at the time. This book gets its title from 1,200 volumes of that library that were lost at sea. Hernando knew his father’s place in history, and as a youth even accompanied him on his fourth voyage. Hernando would also take his own voyage to Hispaniola later in life.

Hernando saw himself as a caretaker of the family legacy. He played a role in downplaying Christopher Columbus’ mysticism and other bizarre beliefs, as well as the degree to which Columbus misunderstood his discoveries. Hernando also played a large role in publishing and editing Columbus’ autobiography, which would shape popular history for centuries. Bartoleme de las Casas, one of my historical heroes and author of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, also plays a role in this story. He and Hernando did not get along.

Edwards-Lee intermingles this history, and Hernando’s role in it, with Hernando’s private life as a book collector, librarian, and scholar. This allows Edwards-Lee to delve into the history of printing, how different ways to organize libraries can help or hinder different kinds of research, and even compares different cataloging systems to early search engines (Hernando lived before Google).

This book is a hybrid of Hernando Columbus’ biography, the history of early transatlantic exploration, and a book about books. It’s a little disjointed both in scale and in subject matter, but is still an enjoyable slice of history.

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