The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library
Though Christopher Columbus gets all the press, his son was “no less boldly visionary,” said Ernest Hilbert in The Wall Street Journal. Hernando Colón, who at 13 accompanied his father on the explorer’s final voyage, grew up to be a genius at gathering and ordering information, eventually creating a library like no other. Because Colón was so well-traveled, Edward Wilson-Lee’s book about his exploits “takes in almost the whole of the Renaissance,” from Brussels to Rome and from Erasmus to Martin Luther. The author cuts between Colón’s journeys and his efforts to apply his discoveries to cataloging his haul, and “if this sounds clunky, it really isn’t,” said Dennis Duncan in The Spectator (U.K.). What we get is “a picture of an extraordinary mind conceiving and then creating a sort of steampunk Google.”
Colón was “the ultimate completist,” said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. He wanted his dream library to contain everything—not just works of the Western canon, but art prints, satirical pamphlets, even cheap erotica. “Obsessed with finding order in complexity,” Colón worked at making all the information in his holdings searchable, and he also unwittingly provided a map to his own life by noting in each of 15,000 books where and when he acquired it. Not all of his acquisitions made their way back to Seville, though. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books takes its title from one of the “most touching” of Colón’s many lists: a memorial of sorts to the 1,637 books that were lost in a 1522 shipwreck.
The library Colón created never did become the comprehensive store of knowledge that he dreamed of, said Tim Smith-Laing in The Telegraph (U.K.). His failure, though, “only makes him more interesting.” And though his biography of his father tries to establish the older man as a divinely chosen world changer, “he is certainly a more attractive figure”—both honest in his dealings and “unendingly curious.” His library now comprises only 4,000 surviving items, but five centuries after he founded it, he himself is “lucky to have found a biographer so willing to search through the remnants.” ■