The 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!