Here’s a story about a priceless 16th century book that has just been rediscovered that describes 15,000 other books. Last week’s A.Word.A.Day terms from wordsmith.org were fittingly related to books, including “bibliolater,” meaning “one with extreme devotion to books.” Hernando Colon, the person responsible for the creation of “Libros de los Epitomes,” the aforementioned one-of-a-kind book, was at least a bibliolater, and perhaps more of a bibliomaniac, “one possessing an extreme preoccupation with collecting books.”
Never heard of Colon? He was Christopher Columbus’ illegitimate son, first biographer, companion to the New World, and a noted mapmaker, but his fame rests on his library. “The Biblioteca Hernandina and the Early Modern Book World,” an online article from Cambridge University, states that “Between 1512 and his death in 1539, Hernando Colon set about collecting one of the great libraries of the early modern age. ‘Without being a man of great estate,’ one of his contemporaries recorded, ‘he traveled throughout Christendom searching out and bringing together books on all subjects.’ At the time of his death the collection boasted over 15,000 volumes.”
Rather than seek out dusty monastic copies of Greek and Roman classics, Colon bought manuscripts, pamphlets, poetry and even pornography. He wanted all information then in print readily accessible to further the Spanish empire. theguardian.com states that “Colon considered his library to be ‘the brain’: housing all the information he could find across the world so that … ‘any question that needed to be answered could be answered.’” Colon didn’t stop with collecting, no siree Bob. He kept notes on where and when every book was bought, along with its cost, the currency exchange rate that day and his thoughts about its contents. Then he hired a team of scholars to read and summarize all 15,000 books, which were compiled into “Libro de los Epitomes.” 15,000 books doesn’t sound like much, even compared to our local public library’s 350,000, but in the 1500s, the next largest European libraries possessed around 3,000.
Colon’s great work survived, most precariously, thanks to the Icelandic-Danish librarian Arni Magnusson who came along over a century later. Magnusson was the librarian for Matthais Moth, a Danish statesman whose sister was the Danish king’s mistress. Around 1720, after a decade surveying conditions in Iceland at the king’s direction, he became the Copenhagen University Library’s director, and soon people hoping to curry favor with Moth began making presents to Magnusson of rare books. Magnusson, whose uncle was a scribe and grandfather a noted copyist, collected and copied all the rare Scandinavian books he could locate, eventually some 3,000: the world’s largest library of rare Scandinavian literature.
Along the way, Magnusson also acquired 20 Spanish books, including a copy of “Libro de los Epitomes.” Unfortunately, most of Copenhagen and his library burned in 1728; he died homeless a year after and donated his library’s remnants to the Copenhagen University Library. These included Colon’s Epitomes, which languished unnoticed for hundreds of years until recently, when a Canadian scholar found and reported it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which contacted Cambridge University’s Colon specialist, Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee.
“The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” Wilson-Lee’s new biography of Colon and the Epitomes, will soon be published, but those wishing to acquire a ready-made library need look no further than one of the world’s great bookstores, London’s Heywood Hill Books. Consultations with skilled book selectors are made by phone, online or in person at their shop, “all marked by old-fashioned courtesy and good humour,” to develop a subscription plan. Each month the booksellers “go into their monthly huddle and carefully hand-pick an exceptional book to suit the subscriber’s individual reading taste.” which they mail out. A 12-month subscription runs around $500, but if money’s no object, they’ll create a “bespoke library” to suit your personal or corporate desires, such as “300 books to read before I die,” “the great American novel,” or “every 20th century aviation memoir.”
“Life is too short to waste on bad books,” heywoodhill.com tells us. “Allow us to sort the wheat from the chaff.” Or call on the librarians at our public library who have already sorted the literary wheat from the chaff in a way that we can all utilize and afford.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.