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Reviewed by A.J. Jacobs
Sunday, May 21, 2006

THE BOOK OF LOST BOOKS

An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read

By Stuart Kelly

Random House. 344 pp. $24.95

Remember those innocent days when an author's work could actually be lost forever? When the only remaining copy of a book could be destroyed in a shipwreck? Or a typewritten manuscript could be left in the back of a cab, never to be seen again? Or a scroll could go up in flames in a monastery fire?

Nowadays, good luck trying to misplace a single piece of published writing. Every page, every sentence, every keystroke from the last decade is archived and Googled and linked to within an inch of its life. And the idea of losing a manuscript? It's fast becoming obsolete, as writing is increasingly vomited straight from the brain onto the Internet with nary an editor in between.

As a writer, I can tell you, it's no treat. I'd pay good money to have Google erase my ill-conceived 1996 defense of Jerry Springer. But the world is stuck with it until the Rapture or the supernova of the sun, whichever comes first.

Theoretically, this bold new digital age will allow us to preserve masterpieces that might have otherwise vanished. But really, who can find those rare works of genius among the mountains of schlock? It becomes harder every day. We live in an era when anyone who has mastered the hunt-and-peck method can be an alarmingly powerful publisher.

In any case, once upon a time, books did, in fact, disappear. And Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books is an entertaining and learned survey of those pages you'll never get your hands on. A self-described compulsive reader, Kelly began keeping a list of lost books when he was 15. That list eventually resulted in this chronological study that covers everything from cuneiform tablets to Sylvia Plath.

For the very unlucky writer, not a single syllable of writing remains. The celebrated Greek tragedian Agathon was one such poor sap. His fellow playwright Xenocles didn't fare much better -- we know of only two lines, and lame ones at that: "O cruel goddess, O, my chariot smashed/Pallas, thou hast destroyed me utterly!"

Shakespeare was far more fortunate: Most of his work has been saved, but there's still the vexing case of a play called "Love's Labour's Won." Was this a real play, perhaps a sequel to "Love's Labour's Lost"? Or was it an alternative title for "The Taming of the Shrew"? Kelly hopes the former -- and even ventures that it may someday be found; the quarto for "Titus Andronicus" was discovered as recently as the first decade of the 20th century.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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