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The Top 10 Books Lost to Time
September 27, 2011 12:06 PM   Subscribe

Smithsonian.com lists the top 10 books lost to time.
posted by reenum (67 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
So sad, the days before the internet...
posted by Melismata at 12:10 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jeez, the first two comments on that article wallop the list right off, too.
posted by nevercalm at 12:14 PM on September 27, 2011 [15 favorites]


We're also missing huge chunks of Euripides.
posted by The Whelk at 12:17 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


This Top 10 list sure does consist of one work of the Classics, the Bible, four writers from England, three from America and one from Scotland.

Also, does anyone know the original Latin for "He knew many things, but all badly”? Because I am getting that shit tattooed on me.
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, really disappointing. I'd give 100 lost minor Shakespeare plays and all of Plath's works for one copy of Pytheas, or really a huge bulk of what was in the library of Alexandria.
posted by vacapinta at 12:18 PM on September 27, 2011 [10 favorites]


A lot of "lost" fragments have been uncovered in Oxyrhynchus and there is still hope that some of the these lost texts will turn up in the future.
posted by mattbucher at 12:18 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would have liked to see Love's Labour's Won. But still a cool list.
posted by dfm500 at 12:19 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


On Nature, Heraclitus.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:22 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wow, I'd love to read the monk's account of the Arctic in the 14th century. I wonder if he ever interacted with Inuit groups or other folks living in the very high north.

(For some reason, google is offering to translate this page from Indonesian for me?)
posted by ChuraChura at 12:23 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about the comedy section of Aristotle's Poetics?
posted by leotrotsky at 12:24 PM on September 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


Just in the greeco-roman canon alone there are huge gaps. The second book of Poetics, fer example.
posted by The Whelk at 12:24 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


(jinx)
posted by The Whelk at 12:25 PM on September 27, 2011


I'm missing Abdul Alhazred's original Kitab al-Azif.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:27 PM on September 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


I can't find any of these on Google or The Pirate Bay. Weird.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 12:29 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Mercator, writing to an English scientist named John Dee in 1577

Yes, a scientist! Thank you!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:29 PM on September 27, 2011 [8 favorites]


What about the comedy section of Aristotle's Poetics?

Didn't James Bond find that when he was disguised as Sherlock Holmes?
posted by kirkaracha at 12:32 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wot, no Classic of Music?
posted by Abiezer at 12:34 PM on September 27, 2011


Cardenio's been staged twice in London quite recently, first as Double Falsehood, Lewis Theobald's version of what he claimed was a lost Shakespeare manuscript he'd discovered, and once by the RSC in Gregory Doran's much more rigorous reconstruction.

The original is generally agreed to be a Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration rather than 100% Shakespeare's own work, but how much of the great man remains in either of the two texts mentioned above is anyone's guess. I saw both productions on stage and, while each provided a perfectly enjoyable evening, they're sure not in the same class as Will at his best.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:37 PM on September 27, 2011


I just find it amusing that the comparable Cracked list is more universal (and, in fact, includes no English literature.)
posted by Navelgazer at 12:39 PM on September 27, 2011 [10 favorites]


Heck, we don't even know if we are missing the end of The Tale of Genji or not. How's that for lost?
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:40 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd settle for Suetonius's Lives of Famous Whores, Caedmon's collected poems (we only have one), and the second half of Edwin Drood.
posted by verstegan at 12:42 PM on September 27, 2011


Lists like this (along with the inevitable other titles which will come up in this thread) only serve to make me a little sad and twitchy.
posted by jquinby at 12:43 PM on September 27, 2011


The list kind of lost me when it described Margites as Homer's first book. It's a work commonly attributed to Homer, but Homer wasn't a real person, so it's not actually his first book.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:48 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pretty Euro-Amero-Anglo-centric
posted by KokuRyu at 12:49 PM on September 27, 2011


I'd like to lose a few top ten lists.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:52 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know... I think a lot of stuff is going to wind up having fallen through the cracks and disappearing forever over the next few years.

Look at digital media. How many computer programs have fallen into oblivion in either favor of the latest version or the disolution of the publishing house? Now think about your own photos? How many photos have you lost from platform changes (new phone, phone fell in the ocean, movement from Myspace to Facebook to Google+, Snapfish abandonment, Flickr, etc... ?

Digital media has made data archiving more accessible, but we have made it much less of a priority, and as such things have disappeared. I suspect eBooks will wind up going the same way...
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:53 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


So my copy of The Isle of the Cross is worth something?
posted by cjorgensen at 12:53 PM on September 27, 2011


If I get a time machine the FIRST thing I'm doing is knocking a few widows and sisters away from the fireplace.
posted by The Whelk at 12:55 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


None of Protagoras...
posted by yoyo_nyc at 12:56 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, does anyone know the original Latin for "He knew many things, but all badly”? Because I am getting that shit tattooed on me.

I rather think that's the sort of thing you almost WANT to be grammatically incorrect.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:02 PM on September 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


Whoa, you guys don't have these? Tht's weird, I have all of them. My cousin got them for me when he was visiting England last summer. There was a little bookshop there that carried all these books. Yeah, they're pretty good. I think a friend of mine is borrowing them right now, though, but as soon as I get them back you can totally read them. They're okay.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:04 PM on September 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


Hadley Hemingway -- a glass half full type of gal.
posted by zagyzebra at 1:06 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


No authentic Necronomicon. That knock off you can buy at Barnes and Noble ain't gonna summon any ancient gods.
posted by TheRedArmy at 1:07 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I agree with vacapinta about the ancient library at Alexandria, which is my idea of fantasy book porn.
posted by cool breeze at 1:09 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Almost every work of Punic or Etruscan literature has been lost. Just one could shed so much light onto their culture.

Also, does anyone know the original Latin for "He knew many things, but all badly”? Because I am getting that shit tattooed on me.

Well, the original would be Greek, but it rather sounds to me like Henry's Cat: "he knows everything about nothing, and not so much about that."
posted by Jehan at 1:12 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Perhaps inspired by the recent rediscovery of a lost James M. Cain novel?
posted by Naberius at 1:15 PM on September 27, 2011


I still cringe every time I read that Ted Hughes just straight up tossed Sylvia Plath's final journal in the freaking fireplace.
posted by blucevalo at 1:15 PM on September 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


Longing for Great Lost Works:
Actually finding a lost book, however, can be a mixed experience. In 2004, researchers unearthed Truman Capote's first attempt at a novel, which he himself decided was unfit for publication. Since its release in 2005, "Summer Crossing" hasn't replaced "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Neither has "Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot," a long-lost children's short story by Mary Shelley, caused a massive reevaluation of her career. No one in the future is going to be saying, "You may not know this, but Mary Shelley, the author of 'Maurice,' also wrote a horror novel called 'Frankenstein.' "

Maybe the most disappointing literary rediscovery, although no one will admit it, has been the Dead Sea Scrolls. As archaeology, they are the most incredible find, genuine early texts found in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea buried for two millennia. Ever try reading them? They're like the boring bits from "Moby-Dick," only somehow more boring.

Not that these little disillusionments should take away from the value of missing books and the importance of their rediscovery. Modernity was born out of the Renaissance, which is the greatest rediscovery of missing books in history. When the Greek scholar Chrysoloras arrived in Florence in 1397, no one had been able to read Greek in Italy for seven centuries. Imagine the arrival of Homer and Plato and Aristotle in the original. And the consequences couldn't have been more staggering. To this day we are the inheritors of the nostalgia that haunts us, and the restless hunger for more knowledge that drives us.

We live in a world of too many books. There's not enough time to read the books we have to read, never mind the books we should read or the books we want to read. Every library, even a local public library, is an overwhelming experience. The books that don't exist are in some ways more important than the ones that do. From the First Emperor of China who buried the scholars alive in 213 B.C. to the torchers of Harry Potter books in 21st-century America, people who destroy books show the deep and abiding power of literature more than any promoter. It's the infinite possibility of missing volumes that makes them so desirable. They become, in their absence, books shivering with all that books can be.

posted by zarq at 1:18 PM on September 27, 2011 [13 favorites]


I'd add to this list that I'd really like to hear some ancient Greek music. Either everyone played from memory or the writings that indicated what the music sounded like are lost.

Also, the "lost" Austen ending may never have been written, so that's another reason it probably shouldn't be included.

And yes, there are lots of non-Western items of lost literature that likely belong more on a top 10 list.

But in general my reaction is -- I sure hope those neutrinos really were going faster than the speed of light, because I'd love to be a time traveling lost literature recover-er.
posted by bearwife at 1:19 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow that Cracked article really is better than this Smithsonian thing. I weep.
posted by Nelson at 1:22 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


To be fair, The Smithsonian is all apple pie and quilts and Americana, so even going over to exotic Olde England is kind of a stretch for them.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:23 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I want to know more about what we are missing from the Tamils, from Japan, from Korea, and from West Africa. I don't know enough, but I want to know.

I also want to find out what was in the Bonfire of the Vanities, and i want to vacuum up women's letters, journals, and other ephemera, it wasn't only Plath's we are missing. And porn, we have a dearth of porn.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:28 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


For a Western Civ list, I am surprised that Gogol, Joyce, or Byron didn't make the list. I don't understand why Isle of the Cross is so important.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:33 PM on September 27, 2011


From the comments:

How about the 123 lost plays of Sophocles? There are only 7 extant but imagine if there were plays as powerful as Antigone, Oedipus, Ajax...

The rest were just Sophocles' spec scripts for Seinfeld.
posted by drezdn at 1:34 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


i want to vacuum up women's letters, journals, and other ephemera, it wasn't only Plath's we are missing. And porn, we have a dearth of porn.

And badass Greek lady-poet Sappho can't even get a namecheck on a list of lost books!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:36 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd like to see Pythagoras' writings and Aristotle's On the Pythagoreans. (OK, I'd like someone else to see them and then write accessible English-language non-fiction about them.)
posted by Zed at 1:36 PM on September 27, 2011


The rest were just Sophocles' spec scripts for Seinfeld.

But, wait, that one where George took a part-time job working for the Sphynx but doesn't show up for the first day and hides in Jerry's bathroom with his shirt off and Kramer totally by accident solves the riddle of the ages but doesn't realize it and almost falls down and then all the Thebian teenagers have a crush on Elaine and just she rolls her eyes? And also a horse keeps farting over and over? And a Thebian baker invents marble rye? That one would have been awesome.
posted by aught at 1:39 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


> I also want to find out what was in the Bonfire of the Vanities

Man, just watch the movie. I got 60 pages into that long winded turd only to realize that I was wasting my time.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:46 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


,i>What about the comedy section of Aristotle's Poetics?

Considering the damage inflicted by readers of the 1st part, this would complete some sort of Necronomicon for European literature...
posted by ennui.bz at 1:48 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


"What about the comedy section of Aristotle's Poetics?"

Didn't James Bond find that when he was disguised as Sherlock Holmes?


Impossible. The last copy was destroyed in 1327.
posted by homunculus at 2:05 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I expected to see on this list Byron's lost memoir, which was reportedly burned by a friend who found the contents too shocking to permit it to be passed on to posterity.
posted by jayder at 2:15 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I'd really like to see the complete journals of Charles Dodgson.
posted by Zed at 2:19 PM on September 27, 2011


Also, does anyone know the original Latin Greek for "He knew many things, but all badly”?

πολλὰ μὲν ἠπίστατο ἔργα, κακῶς δέ ἠπίστατο πάντα.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:22 PM on September 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


A lot of "lost" fragments have been uncovered in Oxyrhynchus and there is still hope that some of the these lost texts will turn up in the future.

Alternatively in Herculaneum, where the should we shouldn't we has scholars jumping about like an indecisive Homer Simpson.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:23 PM on September 27, 2011


(Oh, and let us not forget the lost books of Tacitus.)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:25 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lost books? Given enough time, Borges could have written them all.
posted by falameufilho at 2:42 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oops, slightly inaccurate, should have been:

πολλὰ ἠπίστατο ἔργα, κακῶς δέ ἠπίστατο πάντα.

(The "μὲν" is Plato's and spoils the meter.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:45 PM on September 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


I just recently discovered the wonderful world of Bruno Schulz, the most synesthetic writer of all time, a couple of years ago. All of works can be found in one volume. Read it. He was shot, for an especially invidious reason, by a Nazi.

His missing book? The Messiah.
posted by kozad at 3:11 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm fine with it. 10 less things engineering students get stuck trudging through during required freshman lit classes.
posted by thorny at 3:49 PM on September 27, 2011


kozad: Yes! I was just thinking about Schultz and The Messiah today. Glad someone brought it up in a thread about lost books.
posted by ob at 3:55 PM on September 27, 2011


This list is bullshit because all 10 aren't classics. I mean, the lost chapters of Livy, the missing books of the Epic Cycle, or Aristotle "On Kingship" don't make the cut over yet another Jane Austen or Hemingway novel?
posted by absalom at 4:02 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd love some more Greek poets. We have but a few bits of Archilochus and he's brilliant. At the same time Spartans were making a fuss about not dropping their shields, he wrote this:

One of the tribesmen in Thrace now delights in the shield I discarded

unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,

but at least I got myself safely out. Why should I care for that shield?

Let it go. Some other time I'll find another no worse.



Oh and:

Also, does anyone know the original Latin Greek for "He knew many things, but all badly”?

This is basically the conceit of Bouvard et Pécuchet (which, fittingly, remained unfinished).
posted by ersatz at 4:39 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or you can cut to the chase and just read Stuart Kelly's The Book Of Lost Books, which I'm delighted to find has recently been put out in paperback.

It starts 77,000 years ago and works through a respectable selection of literature we know about but do not know, to end at the heat death of the universe and, in postscript, Ozymandias.

Not all is bad in the world of words when such things may be obtained for the price of a bottle of wine and the wish so to do.
posted by Devonian at 5:26 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wot, no Classic of Music?

Yeah, for real, man. Here in Japan, we lost virtually all of the Fudoki, the Isshi Incident and other upheavals destroyed multiple pre-Kojiki works, who knows how many documents we've lost from the greater Korea-Japan area that would have shed light on the whole Koguryŏ thing and the history of the region (and its languages!) in general — and I'm supposed to care about some near-juvenilia by Hemingway and Hardy and a minor melodrama by Melville?

I understand that we all have our biases, but Smithsonian.com, please.
posted by No-sword at 7:50 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of stuff is going to wind up having fallen through the cracks and disappearing forever over the next few years.

True. Digitisation may well end up as a phenomenally good way to distribute information, but absolutely hopeless at preserving it. That's a distinction we really ought to be able to grasp, and I wish the internet utopians would acknowledge it rather more.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:21 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Digitisation may well end up as a phenomenally good way to distribute information, but absolutely hopeless at preserving it.

Ditto woodbase paper. A whole lot of 19th and 2oth century stuff quietly burning up though internal acid.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:29 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ditto woodbase paper. A whole lot of 19th and 2oth century stuff quietly burning up though internal acid.

True again, but paper does at least take quite a long time to destroy itself. What's more, the only equipment you need to access information held on paper is your own eyes and a shared language.

I've got books on my own shelves that were published well over 100 years ago, but which I can read as easily now as people could on the day they were printed. Last month, I visited the UK's Parliamentary archive at the Palace of Westminster, and our guide unrolled a parchment from 1481 for our inspection, which was still perfectly legible and easy to read after 530 years. How many mutually-incompatible computer formats will have come and gone by 2541?

To take another example, I have some old journal entries on floppy discs from a computer I owned less than 20 years ago, some of which I was silly enough not to save on paper. It would require an enormous amount of effort to access the information on those discs now. My old handwritten diaries, on the other hand, which are twice as old, remain as accessible as ever.

I realise there are ways of transferring information from one computer format to the next, and a handful of specialist libraries and universities which keep the old hardware available for researchers as long as they can, but finding and using somewhere like that requires far more time, effort and expense than most people are prepared to take. Historians and biographers are already beginning to wonder what their successors will do without the paper correspondence such writers rely on as a research source today.

Paper isn't perfect, and it certainly can't compete with digital media for ease of distribution. But preservation is an entirely different matter, and paper's still got a lot going for it there. Treating a book with benign neglect - the "default option" if you like - means it continues to exist for a century or more. Adopt the same default option with digital information, and it will almost certainly be lost within a decade. And let's face it: we're all lazy, aren't we?
posted by Paul Slade at 8:42 AM on September 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


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