Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books' Some of the world's greatest prose and poetry may lie in the ash heap of history, according to Stuart Kelly. In The Book of Lost Books, he describes works by Jane Austen, Aristophanes, Sylvia Plath and others whose bibliographies may be incomplete.
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Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books'

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Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books'

Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books'

Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books'

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Some of the world's greatest prose and poetry may lie in the ash heap of history, according to Stuart Kelly. In The Book of Lost Books, he describes works by Jane Austen, Aristophanes, Sylvia Plath and others whose bibliographies may be incomplete.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Many of us regret that we haven't made time to read all the great books of history. Take heart, there could've been a whole lot more. Stuart Kelly's new book is The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read.

Mr. Kelly traces books by literary eminences that have simply gone missing over time, some destroyed by their despairing author or burned by his or her embarrassed survivors, lost in luggage, scattered in trash or just mysteriously vanished.

Mr. Kelly joins us now from London. Mr. Kelly, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STUART KELLY (Author, The Book of Lost Books): Thank you very much for inviting me.

SIMON: To begin with one of your most prominent examples, it is possible, some people believe, that there is more Shakespeare to be found. And I want to specifically ask you about Love's Labors Won.

Mr. KELLY: Originally, it was thought to be the subtitle for another play. It was mentioned by Francis Mears in 1598. A fragment turned up in 1953, a scrap of a bookseller's list of volumes he sold.

I think the real fact is that Love Labor's Won was a separate play and we're so terrified of the thought of having lost something by Shakespeare, we'd rather pretend it was one of the plays we do have.

SIMON: And yet the thought that a manuscript from so many centuries would be lost before the days they could be put on computer file or disk or even reproduced en masse the way that we do nowadays, that wouldn't be remarkable.

Mr. KELLY: Well, the things about Love Labors Won, in particular, is because it was a bookseller's list, we know it was printed. Therefore, there had to be multiple copies. It's the fact that every single one of them, multiple copy, has disappeared.

Manuscripts which are unique, things like memoirs where there is only one copy and hasn't been published, we can almost understand why that might disappear. In one way, this is brought home to me rather remarkably. The day I sent my manuscript away from my computer, we were burgled and the laptop was stolen. Of course, I didn't back the thing. So for a while, the book only existed as this Internet version on my publisher's inbox.

SIMON: Oh my word. And if somebody had pressed the delete button by mistake...

Mr. KELLY: It would've been a lost book itself. I quite like the irony.

SIMON: Charles Dickens died without finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Mr. KELLY: Yes. And before he died, he did offer to tell Queen Victoria how it was going to end. And she decided not to listen to him. So the one person who could've known how Edwin Drood was going to end declined the opportunity. It's a wonderful book, Edwin Drood, and in part that's because you can imagine so many possible Edwin Drood endings.

SIMON: I think a lot of have heard that at one point in his career early on Ernest Hemingway lost everything that he wrote. You relay details specifically.

Mr. KELLY: Everything he wrote was in a valise which his wife was supposed to bring. And probably she left it on...

SIMON: This is wife number one, Hadley.

Mr. KELLY: This is wife number on, Hadley. Hemingway mythologized this to a great deal later in his life. He said, you know, if he could've had surgery to forget the memory, then he would've taken it. He claimed that that was the reason he divorced Hadley. Usually after one or two drinks, it has to be said.

It was perhaps the biggest break in his career. (Unintelligible) had been telling Hemingway to ditch everything that he'd written and start again. You know, he'd gone through this juvenilia, his apprenticeship phase. So in a way losing the work is what gives us Hemingway. And to that extent we can't really grieve over the loss of some juvenilia, given that we have The Old Man and the Sea, Death in the Afternoon and all the rest of the great novels.

SIMON: Could they, in theory, turn up some day?

Mr. KELLY: These things do have a strange habit of turning up when you don't expect it. The best example I find is the playwright Menander, who lived in the 4th century, B.C. in Greece. All his work was thought to be lost. And yet in the 1960s, a full play was found.

If a play can survive for the best part of, you know, 24 centuries, then I'm sure that Hemingway's manuscripts might turn up as well.

SIMON: How do the manuscripts we can't read, how do they affect an author's reputation and standing?

Mr. KELLY: Some authors, particularly classical authors, I think, if we did have more of their work, we might have a radically different interpretation of their output. So somebody like Sappho - you know, we have seven poems by Sappho. A new one turned up fairly recently. The image of Sappho, the self-destructive, suicidal female genius, had such a terrible affect on the way in which female writers were taught how they should behave. So, you know, the whole history of a kind of suicidal creative is enshrined in the myth of Sappho. If we had her other works, there would be other opportunities for female writers to adopt different role models.

SIMON: Inevitably, are we going to confront the prospect of fewer lost manuscripts in the computer age, as this technology gets even greater?

Mr. KELLY: I don't think so. I'm very hopeful that loss will continue at an astonishing rate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You really want to write a sequel, don't you, Mr. Kelly?

Mr. KELLY: No. I've always promised myself I would never write a sequel

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KELLY: You know, even publishing this first one, I kind of felt it was breaking the idea of the project. I kind of wanted my descendents to find a box of papers with all the notes for it.

Technology is no bulwark against the encroaching of loss. I know of several authors who have lost work on computers.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLY: I know of instances in which manuscripts have been burned in things like house fires. I don't see the Internet or any kind of cyber version as being a guarantee against loss.

SIMON: Mr. Kelly, thank you so much. Nice talking to you.

Mr. KELLY: This has been super.

SIMON: Stuart Kelly in London. His new book is the Book Of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read. Mr. Kelly illuminates the origins of literature and the epic of Gilgamesh in an excerpt on our website,

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Excerpt: 'The Book of Lost Books'



c. 75,000 b.c.e. — c. 2800 b.c.e.

The very origins of literature are lost.

An oblong piece of ocher, found in the Blombos Caves on the southern coast of present-day South Africa, is crosshatched with a regular pattern of diamonds and triangles. It is 77,000 years old. Whether these geometric designs are supposed to be symbolic, whether they are supposed to mean anything at all, they present us with one irrefutable fact. A precursor of modern humanity deliberately engraved marks onto a medium. It was a long way yet to the word processor and text messages, but a first step of sorts had been taken.

The period around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago in humanity’s evolution has been called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution or, more catchily, the Creative Explosion. More complex tools were fashioned, from fishhooks to buttons to needles. Moreover, they are decorated, not only with schemata of lines and dots: a lamp contains an ibex, a spear tip transforms into a bison. There are also statuettes with no immediately discernible use: squat figurines of dumpy women. Is it possible to have slings but not songs, arrows but not stories?

Looking at the cave paintings from Lascaux, Altamira, and Chavette, created some 18,000 years ago, it is overwhelmingly tempting to try and read them. Do these images record successful hunts, or are they imagined desires and hopes? Is this “Yesterday we killed an aurochs” or “Once upon a time there was an aurochs”? What do the squiggles and zigzags, the claviforms and tectiforms over the animal images signify? Occasionally, looming out from an inconceivably distant time, a human handprint appears, outlined in pigment. A signature, on a work we cannot interpret.

Where did writing come from? Every early culture has a deity who invents it: Nabu in Assyria, Thoth in Egypt, Tenjin in Japan, Oghma in Ireland, Hermes in Greece. The actual explanation may be far less glamorous—accountants in Mesopotamia. All the earliest writing documents, in the blunt, wedge-shaped cuneiform style, are records of transactions, stock-keeping, and inventories. Before cursives and uncials, gothic scripts and runic alphabets, hieroglyphics and ideograms, we had tally marks.

But, by the first few centuries of the second millennium b.c.e., we know that literature has begun, has begun to be recorded, and has begun to spread. It was not until 1872 that the first fragments of The Epic of Gilgamesh resurfaced in the public domain after four millennia. The excavation of ancient Nineveh had been undertaken by Austen Henry Layard in 1839. Nearly twenty-five thousand broken clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum, and the painstaking work of deciphering the cuneiform markings commenced in earnest. The Nineveh inscriptions were incomplete, and dated from the seventh century b.c.e., when King Ashurbanipal of Assyria had ordered his troops to seek out the ancient wisdom in the cities of Babylon, Uruk, and Nippur. These spoils of war were then translated into Akkadian from the original Sumerian.

Over time, the poem was supplemented by more ancient versions discovered in Nippur and Uruk, as well as copies from places as far apart as Boghazköy in Asia Minor and Megiddo in Israel. Gradually, an almost complete version of The Epic of Gilgamesh was assembled out of Hittite, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Old Babylonian.

Who first wrote it? We do not know. Was it part of a wider cycle of myths and legends? Possibly, even probably, and there is a slim chance that further archaeological research will answer this. What, finally, is it about?

Gilgamesh is a powerful king of Uruk. The gods create an equal for him in the figure of Enkidu, a wild man, brought up among beasts and tempted into civilization by sex. They become firm friends, and travel together to the forest, where they slay the ferocious giant Humbaba, who guards the cedar trees. This infuriates the goddess Ishtar, who sends a bull from Heaven to defeat them. They kill and sacrifice it, and Ishtar decides that the way to harm Gilgamesh is through the death of Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh travels through the Underworld in search of eternal life, and eventually meets with Utnapishtim at the ends of the world. Utnapishtim was the only human wise enough to escape the Flood, and, after forcing Gilgamesh through a purification ceremony, shows him a flower called “The Old Are Young Again.” It eludes his grasp, and Gilgamesh dies.

The themes resonate through recorded literary endeavor. Gilgamesh wrestles with mortality; he declares he will “set up his name where the names of the famous are written.” Death is inevitable and incomprehensible. Even the giant Humbaba is given a pitiable scene where he begs for his life. Prayers, elegies, riddles, dreams, and prophecies intersperse the adventure; fabulous beasts sit alongside real men and women. The fact that we can discern different styles and genres within The Epic of Gilgamesh hints that unknown versions existed prior to it.

All the earliest authors are anonymous. A legendary name, an Orpheus or Taliesin, serves as a conjectural origin, a myth to shroud the namelessness of our culture’s beginnings. Although anonymity is still practiced, it is as a ruse to conceal Deep Throats, both investigative and pornographic. It is a choice, whereas for generations of writers so absolutely lost that no line, no title, no name survives, it is a destiny thrust upon them. They might write, and struggle, and edit, and polish, yet their frail papers dissipate, and all their endeavor is utterly erased. To those of whom no trace remains, this book is an offering. For we will join them, in the end.

Excerpted from The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. Copyright © 2006, Stuart Kelly. Reprinted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.