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Recovering Literature's 'Lost Books'


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, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.