The Greatest Lost Books of All Time

In my book, The Library of Lost Books, I imagined a library where all the great lost books re-emerged to be looked over by a select group of librarians. When the idea first hit me it got me to thinking: what are the greatest lost books of all time? Of those tomes that went missing, those that were destroyed by fire, water or time—which ones would we most want to have back?

Of course, everyone would have their own list. The Smithsonian has compiled its own list here which has some pretty compelling choices.

In response, here’s the first part of my top 10 list (with #1 being the book I most wish we still had) of lost books. I make a note of those books which make a cameo appearance in The Library of Lost Books.

10. The Roman Sibylline Books.


Some might place this as number one. It is, of course, an almost wholly legendary topic, but probably contains a shred of historic truth.

The Sibylline Books were nine  books of the Cumaean Sibyl, the high priestess resident at the Greek colony of Cumae, near modern Naples, Italy. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, wished to purchase the books from the sibyl and make them his own. But he equivocated, thinking the price too high. No neophyte to tough bargaining, the sibyl burnt three of the books in the presence of the king. She once more asked for the fee. Lucius refused again, arguing he would not pay the original price for only six books. The sibyl burnt away three more of the books without batting an eye. She asked for the original fee again. Lucius relented, paid the fee and saved the last three books.

The remaining books were moved to the Temple of Jupiter, the Magnificent in Rome and as late as 363 AD (after Christianity had emerged) the emperor Julian the Apostate was consulted them in order to determine whether marching against the restive Persian Empire would be auspicious and end in glory. The books said yes, supporting the emperor’s invasion, but it led to his untimely death. Shortly after that, the Roman Empire entered a period of terminal decline, paganism decayed and the remaining three books were lost and the temple was abandoned to time.

Some might ask why I’m rating the Sibylline Books so low. The reason is that I feel they would contain a good amount of stock recitation and gibberish. I feel it might tell us a bit about Etruscan paganism, but would contain little of historical or cultural value. It simply would not be a good read.

The Sibylline Books do not appear in my book, The Library of Lost Books. However, the character of Hypatia in the book is a pastiche of the sibyl and the historical Hypatia. I wanted a character that was a powerful witch with a literary bent. A Sibylline Hypatia fit the bill.

9. The French Revolution: A History. Part one, draft one. Thomas Carlyle.

I include this book not so much for what a loss it was or how much I would have liked to read it, but to the story of how the book was lost.

As a writer you end up collecting quite a few manuscripts from friends asking for a read and critique. I’m always careful to handle the manuscripts with care and return them to the writer friend in one piece. But that’s not what happened when Thomas Carlyle gave his good friend, John Stuart Mill, THE ONLY COPY of his masterpiece, The French Revolution: A History.

Apparently, John wasn’t home when the book arrived. Instead his capable maid intercepted the manuscript, mistook it for trash and burned it.

I imagine after a vigorous interrogation of the maid and a frantic search of the trash and the fireplace, John decided to go over to his friend Thomas’s house to have a chat. I would have to guess  it went something like this. (For the tone of the dialogue, see this scene from Young Frankenstein).

JOHN: Ah, Tom! There you are!

THOMAS: Well, it is my house. Whom do you expect to meet?”

J: Quite right. Anyway…How have you been?

T: Good…Did you get a chance to read my book yet?

J: [in mock cluelessness:] The book?

T: Yes, the one I sent. On the French Revolution?

J: Oh, yes! That book.

T: Well? Did you read it?

J: Read it? Well…

T: What?

J: I…

T: What is it?…Is it bad?

J: No, no. I’m sure it’s excellent. It’s just…

T: [with growing dread:] What…?

[Cut to a scene of a provincial English countryside with a small cottage in the distance. We hear a man’s scream roll across the countryside from the cottage. We return to an interior shot of the cottage:]

JOHN [concerned:] I’m sorry, Tom.

THOMAS [incredulously:] Sorry!? Sorry!? You knew it was the only copy. It was my masterpiece!

[JOHN raises his hands and shrugs pathetically.]

…or something like that. Carlyle went on to write the second and third parts before writing part 1 from memory. But it just goes to show you: Always back up your work!

8. Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Judah.

  File:Aleppo Codex (Deut).jpg

Here’s one for all you Old Testament buffs out there. I recently read the Book of Kings,  and despite some thick prose it was a great read. It’s got battles, slave girls, pagan priests, massacres, bear attacks, chariots of fire in the sky. It’s got Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. What more could you ask for?

But one annoying fact kept getting me. Just as you were getting some good, juicy details about one of the Israelite kings and how he screwed up, you get something like this:

‘What else is there to say of such things? For behold, is it not told in the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel?

On almost every page just as things really start getting good, up comes that phrase again:

For behold, is it not told in the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?

Soon, I started to cry out each time I came to the phrase.

“No! No, it is not told!”

And you guessed it, the Chronicles of both kingdoms are lost. It’s not quite clear how they disappeared, at least from the research I’ve done, though I’m guessing this had something to do with it. I’d like to know if any of you out there in Internet-land knows.

At any rate, it would be nice to have the rich historical detail in those Chronicles back.

7. The Arzhang

 Painter Mani presenting king Bahram-Gur with his drawing. 16th century painting of Shakrukhia (Tashkent)

This is probably the most obscure one on my list. Even the Wikipedia article on it is sparse. It’s also the only picture book on the list.

But it was illustrated by the prophet Mani, founder of a Gnostic sect, who was also a renowned painter. Apparently, it was also written by him. I find the Manicheans fascinating with their blend of Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Christian teachings. It would have been nice to have one more primary sources for this obscure religion.  

But the greatest loss here is the paintings of Mani himself and it would be intriguing to see how Mani’s style differed and influenced later medieval Persian miniature painting.  

6. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, draft 1. T.E. Lawrence.

abe books - 31

This is not necessarily a great loss, but like number 9 above is more famous for the way it was lost rather than its contents.

It appears Lawrence lost the manuscript when he misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading railway station. Despite a national book-hunt, the briefcase was never found. Luckily, the determined Lawrence was able to write most of the book from memory! Quite a feat when you consider it was supposed to be 250,000 words (a very long novel). So, in the end, I’d like to think that we still have most of the book, that’s why this one didn’t quite crack my top 5.

In The Library of Lost Books, Darius finds The Seven Pillars, draft 1. It is the second book he opens in the library after opening The Poor Man and the Lady by Thomas Hardy. Reading station is also a scene in the book which is used to explain how misplaced (as opposed to destroyed) books make their way to the Library.  

Those are the first five of my greatest lost books. After a vacation I will return, to finish off the list with my top 5 lost books of all time.

…Vacation? Did someone say, “vacation”? That’s right. I’m taking the rest of September off. I’ve earned it. I’ll return to writing and this blog in October. See you then. Thanks for a great launch of “Library.”


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