Well, all good things must end. I’m back from vacation and it’s time to get back to work. As promised just before I left, this post will finish off my list of the greatest lost books of all time.
As I explained earlier, in The Library of Lost Books, I imagined a library where all the great lost books re-emerge 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—which ones would we most want back?
My choice for the greatest lost books number 10 through 6 can be found in an earlier post. Below are my selections for 5 through to number 1.
5. Алтан Дэвтэр. The Altan Debter or “Golden Book.”
Here’s one I really would like to read, the Altan Debter. It’s supposedly similar to The Secret History of the Mongols, a history of the reign of Genghis khan and his son, Ogodei. The Secret History is supposed to be a great read (at least the abridged version), but I’ve never read it. It’s a sort of family history of Genghis and his compatriots that relates their years of struggle and eventual triumph. Apparently, some scholars think the Altan Debter was similar but according to one prominent Mongol scholar (David Morgan who wrote a great history of the Mongol empire), that simply isn’t so and it might have included quite a bit of unique material.
It appears that the Mongols had the unfortunate habit of writing things down but keeping only a few secret copies. It might have certain advantages (centralizing power with the khan’s inner circle), but it’s not the greatest method for preserving texts. Somewhat the same fate befell the Yassa and, almost, The Secret History itself. It seems that a similar fate was in store for the Altan Debter.
It’s a pity, I would have loved to see what was in it.
4. De Vita Celebra Meretricum. The Lives of Famous Whores. Suetonius.
Have you ever read The Lives of the Twelve Caesars? I you haven’t, you should. It’s fun.
Twelve Caesars demonstrates that politics hasn’t changed much in over 2,000 years. It’s a salacious romp through the misdeeds and vices of twelve Roman emperors. There are tales of murder, debauchery, cruelty and cupidity that are hard to match in anything I’ve ever read. There is Caligula appointing his horse as a consul, Nero murdering his mother, and Vespasian instituting a urine tax.
With its lively pacing and attention to detail, 12 Caesars is a classic. And it would have been nice to see what Suetonius had to say about “famous whores.” First, I would wonder who would make it on the list. I suspect there might have been a few names of women who practiced the world’s oldest profession, but knowing Suetonius, I suspect he would not dwell on these subjects too much. I think he might widen the definition of “famous whores” to include many other personages of questionable sexual ethics (from the male, old Roman point of view). I’m sure there would be tales and incidents implicating or insinuating involvement by prominent members of emperors’ inner circles and other famous incidents from mythology and history.
But most of all, I really would have enjoyed sitting down and enjoying another book full of colorful anecdotes and characters that only Suetonius could deliver. It’s too bad it’s not around.
3. Στις Φύση. On Nature by Heraclitus (Ηράκλειτος)
One of the first things that got me thinking deeper about how to flesh out the kernel of the idea for The Library of Lost Books, were the fragments of Heraclitus.
By turns dark and light, mysterious and crystalline, the fragments are a true classic of philosophy and history. Plato and Aristotle have their place, but there is something special about Heraclitus. Unlike the other two, Heraclitus with his emphasis on change, equilibrium derived from opposing forces and illogicality seems to foreshadow Newton’s laws of motion, evolution, quantum mechanics and Gödel’s Uncertainty Principle. It’s as if his ideas are more at home in the modern world than Plato and Aristotle (both popular in the Middle Ages). His emphasis on fire particularly struck me:
That which always was,
and is, and will be everlasting fire
the same for all, the cosmos,
made neither by god nor man,
replenishes in measure
as it burns away.
[as translated by Bruce Haxton.]
But then again, perhaps his ideas are familiar because they are so old, so embedded in our subconscious. He clearly was influenced by Zoroaster and there are strange analogies to Lao Tzu who was alive and about the same time, though it’s hard to imagine Chinese ideas penetrating to Asia Minor at that date (or vice versa).
Heraclitus was so wedged into my thinking in the early stages of ideation for this book, that he became an important character in it. But as a character, I hobbled him by allowing him only to speak in the fragments of his which we still possess. When one of the fragments fit, Heraclitus would show up and mouth the appropriate quote. It seemed a fitting treatment for a book focused on lost works, on what went left unsaid and what could have been.
In fact, in one of the final scenes in “Library,” Darius (the protagonist) happens upon Heraclitus weeping and reading his masterpiece, On Nature. This fits with his depiction in art as the “weeping philosopher.” But somehow that moniker never sat well with me. There is something numinous about his sayings, but there is also spontaneity, mirth, satire and childishness. For me, the Fragments seem to come from a shrewd, lively, worldly man, not a miserable observer. In the end, I turned Heraclitus, the character, into a trouble-maker, a man of action although he remains a bit of an obscurantist (not in the philosophical usage of the term). I like to think that’s faithful to who the historical Heraclitus was. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.
2. Мёртвые души, часть 2. Dead Souls, Volume II. Nikolai Gogol.
Gogol’s continuation of his astounding masterpiece, Dead Souls, might have been a paragon of the art of literature, but we’ll never know. The first volume is one of my favorite books of all time and my favorite book ever about a long-standing topic of interest: Russia. It’s part comedy and part drama, with elements of realism and romanticism. It’s entertaining and profound. And it contains one of the most famous quote about Russia in literature:
Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!… And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your mane?
The book was planned to be the first of a trilogy. What many people don’t know is that Gogol completed part two. So, what happened to it? Well, I’ll let Wikipedia take over here, but it’s generally consistent with what I’ve read in other sources:
More importantly, he intensified his relationship with a starets or spiritual elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky, whom he had known for several years. Konstantinovsky seems to have strengthened in Gogol the fear of perdition by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. His health was undermined by exaggerated ascetic practices and he fell into a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February 1852, he burned some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls. He explained this as a mistake, a practical joke played on him by the Devil. Soon thereafter, he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later.
There it is. A masterpiece destroyed not by a raging mob or an invading horde, but by its own creator.It’s something I would have absolutely loved to read and it would have been great, judged by Gogol’s other work and the first volume.
I knew this book had to appear in my “Library.” It does early on, when Darius discovers it on the shelf. But I also wanted to give it a bit bigger play so…I took a phrase from Bulgakov (an admirer of Gogol): “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” and placed it above the fireplace in the Library. I believe this was Bulgakov’s direct reference to Gogol destroying his work, although it appears in a different context in The Master and Margarita. In the end this phrase became a sort of ironic joke in my work because in that world (the world of the Library) manuscripts, in fact, DO NOT burn. They are simply transformed from a burning book in our world into a new book inside the Library. It was a nice way of tying together Gogol, Bulgakov and Heraclitus in one big knot.
1. The Mayan Codices.
The Mayan codices are number one because it represents not a lost masterpiece, no matter how great, of a single author, but the lost soul of an entire culture—the Mayans.
Mayan things come up again and again in “Library.” The Mayan codex is the first codex room (a section of the library gathered around a specific culture) that Darius enters. The date 1562 is also inscribed (in a Mayan date) on a tower of black obsidian as one of the great days of destruction of books. It’s corresponds to the destruction of all the great, priceless Mayan codices by bishop Landa in the Yucatan. Here’s what he had to say about the fire:
“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they [the Maya] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”
Imagine having all that back, having all that part of our universe again. Imagine how much we would learn about the ancient Maya and their culture, their every day life. And the great tales from their mythology. Think how grateful today’s Maya would be to have back that part of their culture. It’s a truly tragic loss and one group of works I wish we still had.
In the end, Landa inadvertently led to the decipherment of ancient Mayan, by leaving a key matching Mayan glyphs with Spanish letters. It’s one of those great ironies of history.
Those are my great lost books, but I could add so many more. Ovid’s Medea (this only missed my list by a hair, I love me some Ovid, it would have been #11 on the list and only didn’t make the cut because we have the legend of Medea in many other writers, including Ovid himself). Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Won (This didn’t make it because we have Love Labor Lost and because, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare). Honorable mention goes to the Yongle encyclopedia and Aeschylus’s and Sophocles’ lost plays. Of course, you also have to realize some cultural bias on my part. I’m from the U.S., so many of my lost books are weighted toward writers from the Western canon. There are many great non-European books that could have made the list too.
And it leaves me wondering…What would your lost books be? Please let me know in the comment section.