Edward Wilson-Lee's book A Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library (Scribner, 2018) details the life of Hernando Colón as he sailed with his father, Christopher Columbus, on Columbus’s final voyage to the New World, which was a journey of disaster, bloody mutiny, and shipwreck. After Columbus’s death in 1506, eighteen-year-old Hernando sought to continue—and surpass—his father’s campaign to explore the boundaries of the known world by building a library to collect everything ever printed. Colon’s library was a vast holding organized by summaries and catalogues—which was really the very first database for exploring a diversity of written matter. Hernando traveled extensively and obsessively amassed his collection based on the groundbreaking conviction that a library of universal knowledge should include “all books, in all languages and on all subjects,” even material often dismissed. The loss of part of his collection to another maritime disaster in 1522 set off the final scramble to complete this sublime project, and such was a race against time in realizing a vision of near-impossible perfection.
Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee teaches early modern literature, Shakespeare, and medieval literature for University of Cambridge’s Sidney Sussex College.