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
star-2

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!

Where do my books come from?

AKA. A Love Letter to My Public Library. I came across this post by way of Rachel @ pace, amore, libri and thought that it was a really interesting way to look at my reads so far. The idea is to go through everything you’ve read this year and make a note about where you got them. Here are my 2017 reads to date from most recent to oldest:

  1. That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston: Library
  2. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Library
  3. Elegy by Vale Aida: Purchased from Book Depository
  4. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo: Library
  5. One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake: Library
  6. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: Library
  7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: Library
  8. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin: Library
  9. Our Dark Duet by V.E. Schwab: Library
  10. American War by Omar El Akkad: Library
  11. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Purchased from BMV (used bookstore)
  12. Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: Borrowed from my mom
  13. Now I Rise by Kiersten White: Library
  14. All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: Library
  15. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee: Library
  16. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: Library
  17. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente: Library
  18. Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee: Library
  19. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: Borrowed from another library
  20. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rios: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  21. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu: Library
  22. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich: Library
  23. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See: Library
  24. Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Library
  25. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli: Library
  26. Giant Days Vol.1 by John Allison: Library
  27. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: Library
  28. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Library
  29. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston: Library
  30. Saga Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  31. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde: Library
  32. City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  33. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Library
  34. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose: Library
  35. Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi: Library
  36. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Library
  37. Villains by V.E Schwab: Library
  38. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Library
  39. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: Library
  40. When The Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen: Library
  41. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: Library
  42. The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak: Library
  43. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera: Library
  44. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  45. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: Library
  46. Everfair by Nisi Shawl: Library
  47. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: Library
  48. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote: Library
  49. The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon: Library
  50. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: Library
  51. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: Library
  52. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera: Library
  53. Fear the Drowning Deep by Sarah Glenn Marsh: Library
  54. Saga Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  55. An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay: Library
  56. Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen: Library
  57. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst: Library
  58. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Library

Of the 58 books I’ve read to date in 2017:

50 – Borrowed from the Toronto Public Library
3 – Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
2 – Borrowed from a co-worker
1 – Borrowed from a neighbouring Public Library System
1 – Purchased from Book Depository
1 – Bought from a used bookstore (BMV)

As expected, I am a heavy library user. A whooping 86% of books I read this year were borrowed from the local library system! There are a few reasons for this:

1. As a Librarian (I work in a corporate library and my job is primarily research-based), I strongly believe in supporting libraries whenever you can. Stats MATTER. Public libraries constantly have to justify their existence, and circulation stats, visits, etc. are all important and concrete ways in which they can demonstrate to politicians, etc. that libraries are useful.

2. I’m fortunate enough to live in the City of Toronto, which has a huge and well-used library system. The City has 102 (I think?) library branches and Toronto Public Library (TPL) ranked first in North America in circulation, visits, and electronic visits per capita among libraries serving populations of two million or more in 2015! I also live within a five minute walk of a library branch, it’s quite literally on my way to and from work, which makes it easy to borrow and return items. I am so privileged to have this fabulous library at my fingertips, and its size means that the library gets almost everything I want to read. The few times that they don’t have something, or its not available in print, it’s frustrating because I’ve become so accustomed to being able to borrow anything I want!

3. I don’t have an e-reader or tablet. Not having an eReader definitely holds me back from being able to receive ARCs from NetGalley and from taking advantage of sales on eBooks. I’d like to take the plunge, but the eBooks provider used by Canadian library systems, OverDrive, isn’t compatible with Kindles in this country, and I’d like the option of borrowing eBooks from the library as well as borrowing/receiving from NetGalley. If anyone has any insight on dedicated eReaders or on tablets, especially Canadians who use their library to borrow, please comment and let me know what you think!

4. Cost/Space. For a Toronto-apartment I have a lot of space. It’s still a city apartment though, so I try to be very careful about what I buy. Generally I buy the latest in a series that I can’t wait to own, or keeper copies of books I’ve read and loved that I know I will want to re-read. Definitely cost is also a factor, especially when it comes to hardcovers, so I tend to borrow from the library and decide whether to buy later.

I’ve also been really bad about buying items and not reading them this year, so I think I’m going to do a few months of reading only what’s on my shelves already at some point in 2018.

If you want to do a post like this, pingback to me here so I can check it out, I’d love to know, where do your books come from?