On Christopher Columbus’ Illegitimate Son & the World’s Greatest Library

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019

Hardcover, 401 pages, $30

A lesson given often in primary schools—perhaps, if later, at the university—is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways.

Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity.

Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them. Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.

Caption from the book: The only existing likeness of Hernando Colón, younger and illegitimate child of Columbus, curator of his father’s legacy, and builder of the greatest library of the Renaissance.

Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.

While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.

Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age…” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books—and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love—even an obsessive one—for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.

The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores—for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums—and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.

Caption from the book: Abridged: Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet, designed to convey the perfect language.

Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise—and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “…once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”

Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new…that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”

Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”

Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation—given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance…” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.

Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)

Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here—both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.

Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake—this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts—helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.

I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.

Non-Fiction Proposals & Competitive Titles

One of the most fascinating pieces of working through the non-fiction proposal is the section on competitive and comparative titles–those books already published which are shaping the genre and conversation about an entire spectrum of topics.

Within the trade market, these questions will be treated in one of the most diverse and spontaneous content type ranges possible (some narrative, some how-to, some somewhere in between, and others overlapping in every other way), versus a more academic or political or religious or other treatment–those sub-markets of which the trade model never treats, or treats very rarely.

Here is some feedback with regards to growing out a helpful proposal section on competitive and comparative titles (one of the most fundamental arguments about why your book should, in fact, publish):

[Think approximately 6-15 competitive titles, and an analysis of approximately 100-350 words per title.]

This section compiles the list of comparative and/or competitive titles for this project which you are developing to offer a secondary examination of the book’s need and uniqueness, as measured against books already published and the ways by which those books published have shaped a discipline.

Provide the title of the book, the author’s name, the publisher, and the year of publication, in this form: Medicating Hypertension by Samuel Man, MD (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) [TITLE by AUTHOR (PUBLISHER, YEAR OF PUBLICATION)]. This is standard industry format for the bibliographical listing of published books.

Your citation should be two-fold. In the first section, give a positive, thesis-level explanation of what the comparative/competitive title is about. Don’t summarize the argument, but give the argument as it is (i.e., “In this book, the author argues that the economy is a codified institution of persons who have collectively gathered to engage in financial transactions, and one key dimension of understanding the institution itself is understanding the persons who build it,” rather than “In this book, the author gives an account of economic infrastructures.” The latter tells the reader nothing about the structure of the actual argument).

Then, provide a targeted analysis of similarities and differences between the book proposed here and the book listed as competitive. Analyses should include concise, targeted sentences, indicating the author’s awareness of the field and his/her capacity to place the proposal within it. This analysis should flow directly from and be contextualized within the section on the book’s need and uniqueness—once a gap in the field is identified, and this book meets it, how does the book compare to those books already out there? In what ways does this book do similar work, and exactly on which points and on what kind of content and research does this book differ?

Books should also cover a small diversity of ‘angles’ of comparison. This includes topic (for example, ‘other books about pornography consumption’), treatment approach (for example, ‘other books written in letter format’), feel/style (for example, ‘other books written in a comic voice, or written as a lighthearted-for-the-coffee-table-read consumption’), etc. The goal is to contextualize the book’s uniqueness and to aid the marketing plan, with the uniqueness by topic/content the most urgent of all the priorities.

Let me know of any questions here–how I might be helpful in helping to shape your own conversation, as proposed to publishers, about conversations that need to be had culturally, socially, politically, and otherwise; those conversations to which you, as a non-fiction writer, may so deeply want to contribute.

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani

I am thrilled to announce that the screen rights for my debut novel, GEARBREAKERS (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), have been acquired by producer Aaron Magnani! It’s the first small step of a lot of bigger steps, but my heart grows ever so much fuller whenever I meet someone who shows a passion for this project I […]

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani — Zoe Hana Mikuta | YA Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Be sure to follow Zoe’s blog! The news is brilliant and exciting.

GEARBREAKERS was the second novel I sold upon returning to agenting, and the first one to go on to be acquired by a producer for potential screen adaptation. Cross your fingers!

All rights for Zoe’s projects are now being handled by D4EO and friends. Check out her young genius and utter magnificence.

New Interview: Darling Axe

I had the privilege of completing a new interview, this time with the folks over at Darling Axe. See the full interview here.

5) Are there any recent changes or trends in the publishing industry that you think authors should know about?

To be honest, I think the more interesting questions here are: What hasn’t the publishing industry done yet? What are we missing here? There exists a lot of innovation in terms of technology and marketing that would foster an even more deeply solvent industry that is being untapped, and the reason is that most authors and editors and publishers and agents are raised by the industry only; they are not necessarily raised in innovative corporate or non-profit infrastructures, or infrastructures that are striving to excel at understanding or reaching people as they are in their experience.

On Making Novels a Game that You Play

Why do people love to write? (Or, well, perhaps–why do people who read and write like I do like to read and write? This may be the more fair, better question, and this post an incipient intro into writing as a form of game theory, which I think applies to more writers than one might expect, even if they’ve never thought of their own writing as a game that they play.)

It is as basic as this: What is every scene in a novel, if not one part of an equation? What is every chapter in a novel, if not one part of an equation?

The genius part is: It’s the way that you write a scene, to create an experience, that makes possible the pure transcending of the mathematization of writing, and the genius of the poetry you bring into writing elevates this mathematical beauty into sheer literary art; into a sort of unbounded, open-ended spontaneity for which only few mathematical equations allow.

scene a + scene b + scene c = chapter a


+ scene a ≠ scene b ≠ scene c;

+ scene a < scene b < scene c; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the scene that precedes it (layers).

chapter a + chapter b + chapter c + chapter d + chapter xyz = novel


+ chapter a ≠ chapter b ≠ chapter c, etc.;

+ chapter a < chapter b < chapter c, etc.; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the chapter that precedes it (layers).

So: What are you doing as a writer? You are “design thinking” your way into every scene, and with every scene, into every chapter, and with every scene-scene and scene–>scene and scene–>chapter and chapter-chapter and chapter–>chapter and chapters–>full novel combination, you are growing out a matrix for the plot arc which informs the evolution and growth of content.

Think as simple as this: Your novel revolves around the story of a young boy who is traumatized sexually by his mother, who “schmoozed” at him as a young boy and turned him into a sexual caricature for herself. What is the “design think” work that can–and, I would say, needs to–go into the design of the novel that you are writing, during the preparatory, writing, and editorial phases? What is the game that you need to play with all of the military pieces that you are laying out, from piece one to two to three to one hundred, in order to elevate the compactness and tightness and–far beyond these other pieces–the intentionality of every scene?

To do the brainstorming and structural work in advance, to know the shape of the whole scene before you write and re-write, changes the entire writing and reading process.

This boy, as an example:

Scene A: moment of trauma of sexual abuse [content of actual scene; to show what is reality]; to demonstrate the reality of trauma, of family life, of the character, of his coping mechanisms [purpose of the actual scene; the explanation/telling/interpretation of what we see of reality, not actually broken on the page but clear in what is shown and how it is shown]

Scene B: moment of secondary trauma of sexual abuse–the lack of belief from teacher at school the next morning [content of actual scene]; to increase the tension of sexual abuse, given that it requires immediate healing and intervention, but this boy cannot find it, because his female teacher is the same as his mother [purpose of the actual scene]

Scene X, scenes later: moment of generational trauma, when this boy-turned-father sexually traumatizes his own child in front of a stranger, half-mindlessly [content of actual scene]; to show the generational effects of trauma, to cast the boy in a redemptive light in the unfolding of some severe intervention on behalf of a stranger on the street who stands in witness of the unfolding trauma [purpose of the actual scene]

Learn to model out your scenes. Spend some time with the distinctions–learn your purpose, and then choose the scene that attains to it in the best way, grasping that the way in which you begin, move through, and end your scene is going to have huge repercussions on the way in which your plot actually unfolds, and the way in which your pacing determines its strength, beginning to end.

Literary agent Donald Maass talks about scene internal and external turning points: those concrete ‘points of movement’ around which every scene turns, and the point for which that scene is written. Internal turning points hinge around a character’s motivations or intents, while external turning points hinge around an event that happens or some other exteriorizing in the content of the novel.

Have you thought through every single scene in your novel with this purpose and intent in mind, and stripped every scene that misses a turning point, or that provides it roughly, imperfectly, or not at all? This is the work that requires manifesting the essentiality of what and how and why you are writing the scene in the first place.

His books, The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel especially, are essential conduits to really genius fiction writing–that fiction that reads like a scene is breathlessly picked up out of nowhere and compiled so efficiently and brilliantly that it hurts to read it, and it is such because the author thought a lot about the individual scene before s/he wrote it. You can tell this kind of intentionality in an instance, and I would say that, in the years that I’ve represented fiction, 90% of my authors has excelled beyond belief in an intentionality that is really capturing and distinct.

My favorite examples of published giant novels, in terms of easy-to-parse beginning pages, are Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Laini Taylor’s Printz Prize-winning Strange the Dreamer, and Sara J. Henry’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel-winning Learning to Swim.