Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee

Edward Wilson-Lee's biography of Hernando Colón - the second and illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus - starts off slowly but builds to a really engrossing second half. 

Sometimes known as Fernando (or Ferdinand in English), Hernando was born in the late 1480s. Among his many accomplishments was his attempt to establish a library unique for his time. He was an avid book collector, living during the time when the printing press was revolutionizing the world of books. 

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is written in four parts. Part 1 takes about a third of the total book, and relates Hernando's young life through the death of his famous father in 1506. His father is seen as a man intent on maintaining his position within the Spanish court, and preserving the vast New World holdings granted him by Ferdinand and Isabella. He claimed Hernando as his son and used his connections within the court to remove the stigma of illegitimacy from him. Even so, being the second son he did not inherit his father's title and position in the New World and had to make his own way.

Hernando was himself attached to the Spanish court from a young age, and managed to successfully support himself after his father's death by finding projects and undertakings with the court's blessings and support. This success continued beyond the death of Ferdinand and Isabella into the reign of Charles I. He traveled with the court and Royal family throughout Europe. This takes up much of Part II.

Finally, in Part III we get to the meat of the story, and the rest of the book becomes much more interesting. It's here, in Hernando's thirties, that his love of books begins to become the theme that would define the rest of his life. 

Hernando lived at the height of the Italian Renaissance, and his travels took him to Rome and the Vatican to see some of the flourishing of the arts happening there. Classical texts were being rediscovered and the magic of the printing press made them widely available throughout Europe. Hernando began to collect books, and pamphlets and other printed materials on his travels, and to read extensively. 

During this time many were struggling to come up with ways to understand and organize the enormity of the flowering of knowledge that was happening. Hernando's response to this challenge was his attempt to gather up all the printed works "from within Christendom and without" and assemble them in a library. 

Just assembling books on the scale he was doing had not been done before. His collection is estimated to have contained upwards of twenty thousand books, pamphlets and other printed materials and manuscripts. The sheer quantity presented new challenges. How would anyone find the book they needed when there were literally tens of thousands of books in this library? To meet these challenges Hernando first devised a new method to house the books, leading to the first known use of bookshelves - books having been chained to desks or kept in stacks previously. 

He devised a way of indexing books on slips of paper that was a predecessor for the card catalog. He created a "Book of Epitomes" that had capsule descriptions of the books in the library - an early form of book review.

His vision was that his index and his Book of Epitomes would be made available throughout Spain, allowing access to anyone who wanted to make use of the  knowledge contained within his library.

In short, the model he created for assembling the knowledge found in printed material, indexing it and making it sortable and accessible to the public, was so far ahead of it's time that it wasn't attempted again until the era of digitization made the Google Book project achievable.  

3 of 5 Stars  ⭐⭐⭐ for The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. By the way, the title of the book comes from a shipment of Hernando's book purchases that was lost at sea, though he had already catalogued them. In the end, I did like this book - I loved the second half. But it started off very slowly - to the point that I began to wonder if it was worth continuing to read. I am really glad I persevered.


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