Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

40639316The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee
Published March 12th 2019

In hindsight, the clue that I wasn’t going to enjoy this book was right there in the (sub)title.

When selecting The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books as my January pick for a Biographies! book club at work, I assumed that the focus would be mainly on Hernando Colón, Christopher Columbus’ illegitimate son, and his quest to collect and then organize books and material into a great library. At the time I thought nothing of the fact that this son, the man the biography is ostensibly about, isn’t even named in the subtitle. By the time I had tediously made my way through the first hundred pages (reading with a piece of paper covering the remaining text on the page so my mind and eyes couldn’t wander) about Columbus and his New World voyages, I bitterly regretted both my mistake and the fact that because I was reading this for work, I couldn’t DNF it.

The story of Hernando, his library, and how he undertook the process of organizing its contents is genuinely fascinating, but unfortunately this story makes up only a small fragment of Wilson-Lee’s bloated, meandering book. The rest covers Christopher Columbus, and Spain and its history in a way that only those who have personal experience with either the region or the manuscripts Hernando collected (which, remarkably, one member of the book club did!) will enjoy. I suspect that many others will DNF (as the two other members of the book club did), frustrated by the lifeless narrative, the dense text, and the lack of focus. Those who finish The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books will no doubt be left with a great deal of respect for Hernando Colón and his work, but sorely disappointed by the wasted potential that is this biography.

Fully the first third of Wilson-Lee’s book is focused on Columbus and, to a lesser degree, his relationship with his illegitimate son. Colón, who accompanied his father on many of his voyages, idolized his father and attempted to repair his tattered (yes, even in the sixteenth century) reputation. Yet even after Columbus’ death, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books reads like filler. It’s an exploration of place and time that goes far beyond what’s necessary to contextualize Hernando Colón’s life; more travelogue than biography. It’s also less than strictly factual, frequently using phrases like “perhaps he would have encountered” or “he may have seen” to discuss architecture and features of the towns and cities Colón visited.

I’ve also never before encountered a biography that told me less about its subject as a person. By all accounts Hernando Colón was an obsessive man, a workaholic consumed by his library and other projects (including a comprehensive Latin-English dictionary that never made it past the letter B, a description of the geographic makeup of Spain including distances and geographical features, and a biography of his father that neatly omits all of Columbus’ worst qualities), who had little in the way of a personal life. Yet the same accusation could be leveled at William Pitt the Younger and I would recommend William Hague’s informative and entertaining biography of Pitt to just about anyone, so I’m inclined to think the omission of any insight into Hernando Colón is a fault of the author.

Parts of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books detailing how Hernando categorized his collection of prints so that he wouldn’t purchase duplicates, and describing his epitome, which summarized information contained in each manuscript with the purpose of disseminating not the books themselves but the summaries to the broader public are fascinating, but they occur late in the book and far too infrequently. As someone who doesn’t often pick up non-fiction, I may not be the target audience for this book, but as a librarian, I most certainly am. If even a librarian, the very geekily interested in the organization of information type of reader this book should appeal to the most, can barely get through the book, I’m not sure what hope anyone else has of finishing it!

2020 Reading Resolutions

Although I didn’t publicly commit to any 2019 reading resolutions, I certainly had some goals in mind. Like many book bloggers, I hoped to spend the year clearing off some of my owned but not read books/backlist TBR. Like many book bloggers, this did not happen. So this year I’m committing publicly to my reading and blogging goals in hopes of holding myself accountable. My 2020 goals are as follows:

1. Read at least 60 books
This will be the third year in a row that I’ve set my goodreads challenge count to an achievable, non-stretch goal of 60 books. In 2018 I famously missed this goal when, late in the year, I abruptly decided to read the 800+ paged Anna Karenina. Although I made my goal in 2019 (with 63 books read in total), I’ve decided to stick to 60 for a few reasons. My reading is definitely impacted by stress and what goes on in my personal and professional life and since I’m still technically a part-time employee of the library system I work for (despite working full-time or nearly full-time hours since I was hired a year and a half ago) with a temporary full-time contract set to expire at the end of March, I really can’t predict where I’m going to be later in the year, whether it’s as a part-time employee surviving by picking up whatever extra hours shifts are available at branches across the city or in another temporary full-time role at a new branch, and that means that I have no idea what my schedule or free-time will be like. The other reason is that I find setting a higher yearly challenge goal dissuades me from picking up longer books, including classics and high fantasy works. I want to feel comfortable picking up longer titles this year without worrying about balancing a long book out by reading exclusively novellas or graphic novels for awhile.

2. Read (at least) 6 classics
The goal I failed rather spectacularly at this year was to read more classics. I don’t think I read a single classic all year! This year I’m aiming for one every other month for a total of at least six. I’m not going to commit to a firm classics TBR, but I will be reading Brideshead Revisited with Steph and Rachel this winter, and possibilities beyond that include The Iliad, Rebecca, East of Eden, Of Human Bondage, a work by Dickens (I’ve only ever read A Christmas Carol, so if you have a favourite Dickens book let me know in the comments!) and Pride & Prejudice.

3. Blog on a consistent basis
It’s not just my reading habits that are impacted by stress/my professional life, when I’m pressed for time or feeling down I don’t have the drive to write reviews or other content for my blog. I feel victim to that in a big way in 2019 and barely had a presence for the last half of the year. I’m not going to resolve to review everything I read or to maintain a blogging schedule because that’s setting myself up for failure when my professional life is so uncertain for the foreseeable future, but I do want to be more consistent and put up at least a few posts a month throughout 2020 and not just poke in for monthly wrap-ups and year-end posts. I’d also like to participate in more book tags and create more original posts/content beyond just reviews.

4. Don’t feel guilty about re-reading my favourites. Do use it as an opportunity to review them.
2019 was a very mediocre year of reading and part of that was because I picked up new books that didn’t end up grabbing me when I would have preferred the comfort food of re-reading an old favourite. This goal is two-fold. I’m definitely a re-reader, yet I often feel guilty when I do it, as if I should feel badly about not constantly seeking out new favourites. I’d like to maintain a better balance between new reads, backlist reads that I hope will become new favourites, and re-reading old favourites. I also have the unfortunate ability to get in my head about rave reviews and put them off or not write them at all because I’m anxious about not being able to accurately describe how much a book meant to me. I’m going to be less intimidated by books I absolutely loved and make more of an effort to do my favourites justice by re-reading some of them and then actually putting into words how much I love them!

5. Read what I own
I’m a big library user and don’t buy many books. The exceptions are keeper copies of favourites that I know I will re-read one day, new or second-hand copies of books I suspect I will love, and gifts or random used bookstore buys. My bookshelves have reached the point of overflow and I definitely need to do a personal weed (a librarian term for going through books and deciding what’s worth keeping and what should be discarded) in order to reorganize, so I’d like to go through my shelves and read more of the titles I’ve picked up over the years so I can decide whether I need to own copies or if I should donate them. Also, I STILL haven’t read all of the books in my Five-Star Read Predictions from 2017 (I’ve read 2 out of 5) and I own all of them, so clearly I need to finish those off so I can do another predictions post!

6. Do more buddy reading
I was hoping to do a lot more of this last year than I actually did, so this year I’m resolving to find other like-minded readers and take on books together. Rachel, Steph and I have already committed to reading a few books together, but if anyone else is interested in buddy reading something together, let me know!

I was going to resolve to read more non-fiction, especially since my favourite book of 2019 was a work of non-fiction, but I’ve been struggling to get through this biography that I’m reading for work for a week so I think I’m going to leave non-fiction alone for a bit!

What are your reading goals for 2020? Leave a comment and let me know!