Lost Books.

Lorraine Berry has a Guardian review of what sounds like an interesting book, In Search of Lost Books by Giorgio van Straten:

Among these lost works are those by Nikolai Gogol (Parts II and III of Dead Souls, which he burned); Sylvia Plath (a novel called Double Exposure which disappeared after her death); Lord Byron (his personal memoir, which his family had burned to protect his reputation) and Ernest Hemingway (an entire suitcase of early work, stolen from a train at Gare du Lyon).

For bibliophiles like me, the knowledge that these works once existed and are now gone evokes something akin to pain. Van Straten writes: “There is a quotation from Proust: ‘To release that fount of sorrow, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way of love there must be … the risk of an impossibility’. I think that passion for a lost book, often like love for a person, arises from the impossibility of reading it.”

In his book, Van Straten distinguishes between missing and lost works. If a manuscript is missing, there remains the hope that it was misplaced in an archive, waiting to be discovered. But with lost works – such as the novel Malcolm Lowry spent nine years working on, which went up in flames when his cabin burned to the ground – no hope is still possible. Yet it’s also clear that Van Straten still searches for lost books, even as he recognises the futility of it. He likens the search to his childhood notions of the quest, to his longing to be “the hero who will be able to solve the mystery”. […]

As painful as it is to contemplate what became of them, I find myself returning to Van Straten’s argument that lost books are like lost loves. Just as Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam (“Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”), knowing that these works once existed is oddly comforting, even if they’re never found or restored. The space for that knowledge is not empty – it is a void. As Van Straten writes, “By the end of the voyage I had realised that lost books possess something that others do not: they bequeath to those who have not read them the possibility of imagining them, of telling stories about them, of reinventing them.”

Good food for thought, though I for one don’t miss the last parts of Dead Souls — I’m pretty sure they would have been a sad comedown. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Something that those of us who study premodern subjects have to reckon with almost daily, unfortunately.

    E.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_library#Ashburnham_House_fire

  2. I remember reading somewhere, years ago. that a classicist had told the author what a disaster it would be if, say, the lost books of Livy were to be discovered. The point was that the amount of material is finite (modulo archaeology), and a person can know it more or less without always panting to keep up, as people who study the contemporary world have to do.

  3. David Marjanović says

    a classicist had told the author what a disaster it would be if, say, the lost books of Livy were to be discovered

    Fuck that shit. That discovery would be spectacular enough that it might even generate the political will to fund its study. The classicist should look forward to the possibility!

  4. Fuck that shit.

    I agree. It bespeaks a lazy mind not actually interested in the object of study. When I got my Kindle and discovered I had essentially all of Russian literature open to me, not just the small proportion that had been translated or the random selection available at libraries and bookstores, I was thrilled. Who cares if life is short? I want to wallow!

  5. The point was that the amount of material is finite (modulo archaeology), and a person can know it more or less without always panting to keep up, as people who study the contemporary world have to do.

    Bring on the books of Livy. And Sappho’s and Suetonius’s complete works. And Claudius’s, or at least the Etruscan stuff. And Aristophanes’s remaining forty plays. And everything destroyed by fanatics in the last decade alone.

  6. Yeah! And the complete Sappho and Archilochus!

  7. Speaking of whom, an article on the world’s oldest recorded proverb, also in Archilochus.

  8. marie-lucie says

    Not just materials from the “ancient world”: students of American Indian languages would weep for joy upon discovering any forgotten materials in now extinct languages.

  9. Marja Erwin says


    Or the lost works in known MesoAmerican languages. Or the lost works in ancient Chinese, supposedly destroyed by the Qin. Or Claudius’s book on Etruscan. Maybe just maybe the efforts to recover books carbonized at Pompeii will uncover that! Or Dexippus’s history– another fragment was discovered a few years ago, “Scythica Vindobonensia.” Or Sallust’s main history. Or another early English hidage, helping make more sense of the Tribal hidage.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Marja Erwin: So many to pine for!

    But what is this word “hidage”?

  11. David Marjanović says

    efforts to recover books carbonized at Pompeii


  12. A Hidage is an estimate of the value of cultivated land in different areas. The Tribal Hidage may be intended for tribute. The later Burghal Hidage only covers greater Wessex, and was intended to estimate appropriate Burghal garrisons against Danish attacks. The Hidages are important in attempts to estimate early Medieval English population sizes.

  13. January First-of-May says

    efforts to recover books carbonized at Pompeii

    Pretty sure it was Herculaneum.

    Sadly, the efforts in question started in the 18th century, when the technology was, shall we say, lacking… some of the recovered books were lost then, because the attempts to read them failed too badly.

    Perhaps the saddest tale of lost texts is that of the Linear B tablets that Arthur Evans found in Knossos one particularly late evening, and set up in a pot to be copied in the morning. The pot happened to be right under a small hole in the ceiling, and it rained overnight… by morning there was nothing in that pot but water and shapeless wet clay.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Our own attempts to recover ancient texts are similarly lacking compared to the methods that will be available in a century from now. There’s always a trade-off between knowledge produced now and knowledge lost for the future. That’s why so much archaeology is carried out as last minute rescue operations, to save what’s there from looting, or urban development, or decay.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Pretty sure it was Herculaneum.

    It was Herculaneum in the case of a few fragments of Epicurus, I learned today.

    shapeless wet clay


  16. Marja Erwin says

    Or the Red Book of Westmarch… which would pose more problems tha it answers… :p

  17. Cassiodorus’s original Gothic history, please.


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