The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books
by Edward Wilson-Lee
Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019
Hardcover, 401 pages, $30
A lesson given often in primary schools — perhaps, if later, at the university — is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways. Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity. Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them. Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.
Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.
While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.
Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age . . .” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books — and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love — even an obsessive one — for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.
The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores — for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums — and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.
Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise — and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “. . . once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”
Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new . . . that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”
Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”
Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation — given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance . . .” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.
Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)
Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here — both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.
Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake — this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts — helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.
I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.