The Book of Lost Books
An Incomplete History of all the Great Books You’ll Never Read
By By Stuart Kelly
New York: Random House, 2006
Hard back: ISBN: 1400062977 Price: 24.95
Have you ever said to yourself, “So many books, so little time?” Most avid readers and collectors have expressed a version of this sentiment at least once. Stuart Kelly, in his Book of Lost Books, lets us off the hook for the thousands of works that have been lost, destroyed, or never finished since several millennia before Christ, when “accountants in Mesopotamia” first incised cuneiform inventories of livestock on little clay tablets.
Kelly, an inveterate list maker, is an enthusiast who strives for completion. At various points, he collected novelizations of Doctor Who, the works of Agatha Christie, and Penguin classics (mostly Greek drama). This book began after Kelly learned that we have only seven of the eighty plays supposedly written by Aeschylus and none of the plays by a celebrated fifth-century-b.c. tragedian named Agathon. The realization that Kelly could never read everything ever written, even if he had enough time, inspired him to write.
There are three categories of loss (to use Italo Calvino’s formula): Books We Know Existed But Are No More, Books Begun But Never Finished, and Books Intended But Never Begun. Some eighty authors are represented in Kelly’s book, both famous and infamous. There is Homer and his supposed first work, Margites, a comedic portrait of a fool or a madman, and Saint Paul, who wrote a now lost letter to the Corinthians on fornication. Camillo Querno, dubbed by Alexander Pope as “the antichrist of wit” in The Dunciad, was a sixteenth-century Italian poet whose 20,000-verse epic Alexias was apparently so execrable that we can be glad it did not survive. Jane Austen’s unfinished novels The Watsons and Sanditon surely torment the very fanatic fans of that author, but we doubt they lament the loss of her Magnificent Adventures and Intriguing Romances of the House of Saxe Cobourg.
Kelly’s purpose is not so much to document literary losses in any scholarly way, but rather to articulate such losses as a reminder that no matter how permanent we believe writing to be, in the end it is as transitory as our own lives. This entertaining buffet of literary trivia is less a dirge for half-conceived, unborn, or lost works than it is a celebration of what survives and a contemplative opportunity to muse on what might have been.