Friday, July 10, 2020

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

Bites off a little more than it can chew
Many histories have been written about Christopher Columbus and his voyages to America. One of the first books to tell his story was written by his own son, Hernando Colón (a.k.a. Ferdinand Columbus), who accompanied his father on his fourth voyage to the New World. Hernando, however, was more than just his father’s son. He led an astonishing life of his own, which author Edward Wilson-Lee chronicles in The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, published in 2018.

Hernando was the second, and illegitimate, son of Christopher Columbus. As a youth, while his father was off exploring the New World for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Hernando was a page in the court of their son, Prince Juan. He spent much of his adult life traveling around Europe with the court of King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Hernando was an accomplished scholar, author, diplomat, geographer, and cartographer, but his real love was collecting books and printed pamphlets. He established a library in Seville that amounted to more than 15,000 volumes. A true Renaissance man, Hernando attempted to amass a universal collection that would comprehensively encompass all fields of knowledge and culture in all languages.

There’s no question that Hernando Colón led a fascinating life, but in this book his story is somewhat smothered under too much historical context. Wilson-Lee thinks the reader needs to know the life story of every pope and prince in Renaissance Europe, which results in countless tangents that distract from the primary narrative of Hernando, his family, and his library. Although I enjoy reading exploration narratives and explorer biographies, my primary interest in this book was Hernando’s library, which is really what makes his story so unique. After covering Columbus’s voyages, Wilson-Lee doesn’t really even begin to get into Hernando’s bibliophilia until about page 150. Even then, he only gradually eases into Hernando’s collecting habits, while the history of the library competes with all the other threads of political, religious, and legal history. The last few chapters, however, focus almost exclusively on Hernando’s library and art collection.

Hernando was not only an obsessive collector, he was also an obsessive cataloger. The numerous lists and annotated bibliographies he compiled were the precursors of the card catalogs, bibliographic metadata, and search engines employed by modern librarians. Wilson-Lee describes at length the various catalogs that Hernando created for his collections, but it would have been far more effective if he had excerpted a page or two from each list so the reader could get a better idea of each cataloging system and its entries. Wilson-Lee makes much of the fact that the Renaissance was an era in which humanist scholars strove to bring order to our understanding of nature and the universe. Thus, every time Hernando learns something or writes something down he is said to be “ordering the world.” Wilson-Lee hammers this point home so relentlessly that the text often reads more like a dissertation than a trade book for the general public.

The story of Hernando’s battle to save his father’s reputation and legacy deserves a book of its own. So does his quest to build the world’s greatest library. When the two are crammed together into one volume, while also trying to summarize the entire Renaissance history of Western Europe, everything gets short-changed in the process. Nevertheless, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books still delivers a great deal of fascinating information on early print culture and the intellectual history of Renaissance Europe. Wilson-Lee also helpfully provides ample bibliographic references for the reader to launch further research into Hernando and his library. Anyone interested in Columbus or the history of books will find this a very stimulating and informative read.

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