Columbus Dreamed of a New World. His Son Found One in Books.

Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library
By Edward Wilson-Lee

Hernando Colón was the illegitimate second son of Cristóbal Colón (known to us as Christopher Columbus). He was educated in royal households; accompanied his father on a disastrous voyage to Central America; represented his philandering half brother, Diego, in a paternity lawsuit at the Vatican; began a geographic survey of Spain; debated the Portuguese on the circumference of the earth; and drafted a Latin dictionary so detailed he was forced to stop, after almost 1,500 pages, at “Bibo,” “I drink.”

Along the way, Hernando bought books. He went on sprees through the shops of Rome, Venice, Nuremberg and Cologne, often snapping up hundreds of titles on a single visit. He bought fine volumes and ephemera, collecting pamphlets and song sheets with as much fervor as the works of the humanist Erasmus. He bought books in languages he couldn’t read, like Arabic and Ethiopia’s Ge’ez, and amassed an impressive collection of printed images. In order to manage his vast library, Hernando imported multilingual scholars from the Low Countries to serve as its librarians and developed an elaborate cataloging system to index the books’ contents.

If ever there was a case of life imitating Borges, this is it. In “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books” (which takes its title from a list of volumes lost from his collection at sea), Edward Wilson-Lee follows Hernando’s life in the usual fashion, from his earliest recorded childhood memories to his deathbed. Wilson-Lee’s main subject, however, is an intellectual hunger at once dazzling and monstrous: Hernando’s insatiable urge to know and to possess.

As befits a geographer, the story of Hernando is one of places. The most exciting section of the book relates Columbus’s fourth and final voyage to the New World, on which he is joined by 13-year-old Hernando. Wilson-Lee conveys the drama of this catastrophic journey, complete with violent storms, crippling disease, an attempt to establish a settlement in what is now Panama that ends in bloodshed and a desperate wait off the coast of Jamaica that brings Columbus’s men to mutiny.

It’s a captivating adventure that allows us to see how Hernando’s outlook on the world was shaped. Facing a rebellious crew of starving men, Columbus uses an almanac he has on board to predict a lunar eclipse, convincing the local Taino that his god will destroy them and the moon unless they provide him with food. And the moon darkens. The young Hernando would have learned from this that books offer power in the most immediate sense.

It’s a testament to Wilson-Lee’s skill as a writer that the businesslike trips Hernando took during the rest of his career, whether in service to his family or to his king, are nearly as engaging to read about as his exploits in the Caribbean. The book’s rich descriptions of Spain, Italy and the Low Countries bustle with local detail, and the early printed images interspersed throughout make it feel like a travel guide to the past.

For lovers of history, Wilson-Lee offers a thrill on almost every page, like the plot of a 16th-century novel about a charismatic Spanish prostitute navigating the Italian underworld, or the case of a Dutch humanist scholar who teaches two West African slaves to speak Latin so as to prove his educational theories. To top it off, Wilson-Lee includes the menu for a feast thrown by Pope Leo X featuring figs in muscatel, cockerel testicles and roasted peacocks “sewn back into their skins, to appear living.”

“The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books” offers a vivid picture of Europe on the verge of becoming modern, but still holding tight to its ancient baggage. Here is a continent of astonishingly versatile Renaissance men, hyperactive printing presses and dangerous new religious ideas. But in Wilson-Lee’s telling, it’s also a culture shaped by the encyclopedias and scriptural commentaries that organized medieval thinking. As a case in point, Christopher Columbus argued in “The Book of Prophecies” that his discovery of the New World was part of a divinely ordained plan for the End Times, recasting Bible passages to make himself the hero of the coming apocalypse.

Hernando must have seen in his father’s writing an important lesson: In an age of abundant and unreliable information, the person who can impose order can shape history — or at least command a comfortable pension. His own tools were less violent and narcissistic, but hardly humble: lists of authors and works, book indexes, a hieroglyphic code used in an early version of the card catalog, keywords and content summaries that would allow readers to find the volume they needed. In short, “Hernando had created a search engine.” He had even grander designs for the future of the library, involving teams of dedicated book buyers and a complex cage system to keep readers from stealing.

If Hernando comes across as a control freak, it may be because life taught him about fuzzy categories and the destructive power of time. “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books” is an intellectual biography, but its beating heart is the tangled love of a son for his father. While the fickle Diego received Columbus’s inheritance, Hernando was the spiritual heir. He fought to preserve his father’s legacy and territorial claims, attributing his own discoveries to Columbus and papering over his father’s excesses. Ultimately, both his library and the family name declined. Edward Wilson-Lee’s magnificent book helps us understand his obsessive desire to gather and preserve, even in the face of chaos.

Irina Dumitrescu is the author of “The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature.”

Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library
By Edward Wilson-Lee
Illustrated. 401 pp. Scribner. $30.

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