Smithsonian: Top 10 Books Lost To Time

Smithsonian posted a list of "The Top 10 Books Lost To Time" by authors like Shakespeare, Homer, Melville, Plath, Hemingway, and an unknown monk explorer.

 Wikipedia Commons 6 6E Merсator North Pole 1595 Inventio Fortunata

In the 14th century, a Franciscan monk from Oxford, whose name is unknown, traveled the North Atlantic. He described the geography of the Arctic, including what he presumed was the North Pole, in a book called Inventio Fortunata, or “The Discovery of the Fortunate Islands.” He gave King Edward III a copy of his travelogue around 1360, and some say an additional five copies floated around Europe before the book was lost.

What followed next was a game of telephone that stretched across centuries. In 1364, another Franciscan described the contents of Inventio Fortunata to Flemish author Jacob Cnoyen, who, in turn, published a summary in his own book, Itinerarium.

Unfortunately, Itinerarium also went missing—but not before Gerard Mercator, one of the most prestigious cartographers of the 16th century, read it.

Mercator, writing to an English scientist named John Dee in 1577, cribbed word for word from Itinerarium’s description of the North Pole: “In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four in drawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone.”

When Mercator published a world map in 1569, he used this description as the source for his illustration of the Arctic—based upon the third-hand summary of a lost book written by an unknown monk 200 years earlier.
"The Top 10 Books Lost to Time"

image: Mercator's 1595 map of the Arctic continent, from "Inventio Fortunata" on Wikipedia


  1. The Margites was only ascribed to Homer (whoever “Homer” might have been, anyway). And it’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, sans the “The.”

    1. And the cool result of that would be a couple of books that are very similar to Inventio Fortunata, but with robots, pirates, aliens and every combination of the three!

  2. These are some interesting choices.   I’m pretty sure we’ve lost more important and remarkable books than those written by Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath (with all due respect to those writers and their fans, as they were both very talented).

    1. I’m pretty sure we’ve lost more important and remarkable books than those written by Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath (with all due respect to those writers and their fans, as they were both very talented).

      Did you really just name the only two on the list that were written by women as the ones least worthy of inclusion? Breathtaking!

      1. He really just named two books on the list that were never completed. So technically, they weren’t written by women, so much as not written at all. And a thing kinda’ has to be found – or at least created – before it can be said to be lost. The fact that both entries on the list from female authors suffer from the same lack of prerequisite existence smacks of perfunctory inclusion. Just a wee bit condescending, no? “There, there, little lady. I’m sure your novel would have been great. We need some females on this list. In you go.”

      2. I’m not a huge fan of Melville either, and I probably should have included Stevenson’s draft, too.

        That said, are you serious?  Are you actually accusing me of sexism simply because I picked two authors from a list of authors?  I like Plath and I like Austen.  I just don’t think they’re two of the stronger entries on the list, especially in light of MadRat’s additions.  Has nothing to do with their being women and plenty to do with their writing.

        I’d really prefer to ditch the fair-and-balanced stuff and talk about some literature.

        1. That said, are you serious? Are you actually accusing me of sexism simply because I picked two authors from a list of authors?

          Absolutely. You looked at a list of ten authors and picked the two women as being the least meaningful. If you had dissed the ancient in favor of the modern or vice versa, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but keep all the men and ditch the two women? It’s actually shocking to see someone say that.

          I’d really prefer to ditch the fair-and-balanced stuff and talk about some literature.

          Austen and Plath speak to the terror and despair of being women in a male-dominated world. Austen, in particular, is a rare female voice actually speaking about women’s issues. They’re a hell of a lot more meaningful than a draft of Jekylll and Hyde.

          1. Yes, as I said, I should have included Stevenson on the list.  I wasn’t really thinking that hard about it because I didn’t expect a moderator to call me a sexist. 

            If you want to have an honest discussion about this, I’d appreciate it if you took my word for it when I said that I’ve read and enjoy both of those authors.  If you’re determined I must be a sexist simply because I have the audacity to have an opinion, then we’re done here.  Also consider calling me an elitist and a troll, as those three seem to be the most popular way to shut down conversation on Boingboing.

            We can talk about the contributions of both authors as much as you please.  Austen in particular wrote about women who dared to have opinions that weren’t handed to them by men, tied in a pink bow.  As for Plath, I’m not sure she would have been any happier were she a man.  Sure she wrote about that “terror and despair” you mention, but she wrote about how terrible EVERYTHING is.  Maybe she was a voice for feminism, but it was overarching depression that put her head in that oven.

          2. Top ten lists always bring out the best in everyone.

            Hemingway and Plath I can do without, so too for the Bible books tossed out by various ecumenical councils and other Church censors. Austen, however, is number two on that list after Shakespeare, and certainly Homer’s equal as a storyteller (though, being not proficient in ancient Greek, I cannot compare styles). Stevenson I’m iffy on; good storyteller, mediocre prose.

            Antinous, Lobster may simply have no taste :o

  3. Too bad the last Indiana Jones movie didn’t hinge on something like this, instead of crystal alien heads.  A shoot out in the Library of Congress would have been so much cooler.

    1. Neat idea, but… the original three Indiana Jones films all revolved around something supernatural – that’s kind of his thing, supernatural archaeology.

      What you’re looking for has been done – National Treasure, with Nicolas Cage, and its sequel (which, naturally, was nowhere near as good as the original, but worth watching IMO).

      That said, please don’t take this as a defence of the crystal skull thing – that was one of the worst decisions possible and I’m staggered that they ruined the great opportunity that Indiana Jones 4 could have been with such a fucking stupid thing (and the ending, and all the CGI, and the stupid characters, and Shia Lebeef…)

  4. Hey, wait.  What about “On Sphere-Making” by Archimedes?  What about the poetry of Sappho?  Where’s “Ab urbe condita libri” by Titus Livius?  Where’s “Hermocrates” by Plato?  What about the missing parts of the “Canterbury Tales” or Nikola Tesla lost lab notes?

  5. Oh and while I agree that Lobster choosing the two women isn’t shocking – I am sure it was just a coincidence – I do agree with Antinous that the Jekyll and Hyde draft is clearly the one thing on this list that is a definite head-scratcher. Unless there’s some crucial context those of us unfamiliar with the case are missing, I’m not sure why that draft is so important when we have the final work.

    If I were to similarly exclude two of these books, I would also choose the Plath, but definitely not the Austen – and in fact, that one being available but missing the second two acts is exactly what makes it so tantalizing – that, and the fact that she’s hugely popular *and* is an excellent writer of literature. And I’m not a particular fan of Austen, but I can recognize that.

  6. #1 lost book: Archimedes’ Method.

    We had to wait another 500 years for calculus to be reinvented after a monk turned the last surviving copy into yet another Bible a millenia later…

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