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.

On Publishing as a Form of Value Investment

value investment (n): a form of investment in which those who invest select companies’ stocks or other forms of financial receptacles that are either undervalued objectively on the market or have a yet-undiscovered or yet-unactivated potential, both relative to the potential as understood by investors

Value fund managers look for companies that have fallen out of favor but still have good fundamentals. The value group may also include stocks of new companies that have yet to be recognized by investors. (from this post on Merrill’s website)

As an example:

Say you have a human person who identifies a need, and then the mind model or conceptualization for the product that can meet the need.

I’ll share one company which I follow on Twitter, to which I gave a shout-out, given that great thriller or speculative writers might find something very interesting for themselves in this company’s work, if their plot development depends in any shape or form on cool IT or tech developments that have never been treated before in fiction: Axon produces technology to help protect the lives of police officers and others working within the public safety realm. (Check out the video on this page. Isn’t this the coolest?)

Using Axon as a purely theoretical example–I do not know the details of Axon’s own strategic planning or history, in terms of conceptualization-to-patent-to-product-development–this can be said: Before someone thought about the time that it takes a police officer to identify a person who observed a crime, to taking notes in an interview, to transcribing those notes for their own chief, to then moving on the transcription–a product did not exist that could aide police officers in saving this time.

Then someone figured the genius idea out, and then Axon moved on the concrete product development, and then it had to launch its own public stocks, and then people had to identify those stocks, and then invest in them. Before these stocks took on some form of public urgency, though–and certainly before the product was ever developed–the value of the product and thus of the stock was undervalued; by value, here, we mean its financial weight relative to other stocks on the market (it’s valued less than it ought to be, given the definition above). A good value investor, in doing his/her research, will identify products of this kind.

Find the newest, coolest need; respond to it; invest in it; and then watch your investment return significantly greater funds than investment in a product that meets a need that isn’t really a need.

Besides this form of dynamic financial value, measured at the level of the stock, there is also the value of the product or company understood in its human or aesthetic sense–the value met, in a personal way, of a product developed and used. It’s an interesting matrix, to think about both the value of the stock as it is, financially, and also the value of the product in human terms.


A long time ago, during my undergrad, I took a course in international development, and one of the questions treated in the course was micro-financing. I was fascinated, also, given that it made sense–both on paper and in experience, given huge case studies abroad–for an investor to pay $250 for a sewing machine, and give a woman a sewing machine, so that with apt sewing skills, she could maximize the value of the $250 over time with the development and sale of her own products (and the investment serving as a sort of guarantor of that kind of value-maximization over time), than to just give her $250.

Shocking, isn’t it, what a basic “mind model” distinction between pure funds and product value, in one form or another contingent on funds, can do to investors–as well as to the creation and maintenance of healthy infrastructure, over time?

If you think about it, book publishing is sort of like this–or could be like this, if writers, agents, editors, publishers, and investors in the book publishing realm thought about their own work with this kind of an acute sensibility and analysis of the kind of product being pitched. This applies, in a particular way, to non-fiction, especially non-fiction that is built and ordered toward the development and maintenance of longevity in infrastructure–a good book about tobacco as a public health concern will aide federal and state governments in responding to these public health concerns in actuality, beyond the theory about the issue and the theory about the necessary public health response contained within the book.

The book is both a product of theory as it is a product that opens up a demand–an undervalued need, say, before the book is published–among readers across the world.

One way to think about agenting on the non-fiction end is this: A primary underlying task involves sifting through huge quantities of research of diverse kinds (financial, creative, regional, personal, and more) to place the highest-quality products, unique in their content, before publishing houses for purchase, given the model above. The research is key to finding holes in published products. Why has the whole planet, for example, never published a book about some of the world’s most key, individual historical icons? You might be surprised about the depravity in biographies.

I, for example, with regards to the development of proposals from the ground up for non-fiction books, help academics sift through large quantities of data and their own research to shape an argument for popular/trade publication (think your big five publishing houses: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc.). Buy this, because it is genius, and it needs to be published; it fits a need, and it creates an experience, and it moves readers over time to remain committed to a product and an imprint, to an idea and to a conversation.

[Read: At its heart, agenting and publishing in this way is a project of ‘long-term, value-only investment’ applied to a different form of creative work. I spend time with ‘companies’ (books) to place before ‘analysts’ (editors, publishers) to maximize authors’ returns (royalties, post-advance earnout) over time. Fun, isn’t it–what it does to the mind?]

So much more could be said, but this is one of the reasons why I came back to book publishing. Really good books, fiction and non-fiction both, have a huge potential to save the world–good fiction aides culture, creates minds and hearts in a vision of humanity and the good; genius non-fiction helps us understand the structures we create and adopt, and helps us also run a thousand miles in the direction of change that brings true joy, and freedom, collaboration and acute responses, and moves those with minds and hearts for good conversation into those exact conversations.

I’ll leave these musings here.

“Why Economists Need the Arts”

I’ve been working through some excellent non-fiction recommended to me by an acquaintance at one of NYC’s ‘Big 4’ consulting firms, written by philosopher and consultant Christian Madsbjerg, founder of ReD Associates. The firm, as far as I can tell via the public front, gathers different forms of experts in the humanities and social sciences to apply the study of phenomenology (experience, in a nutshell) to the advising and consulting of firms on the construction of products and user experiences (UXs).

It’s philosophy, applied to business. [My undergrad degree! That one time my dad told me that philosophy wasn’t so worthwhile…]

These two books were Sensemaking, on one hand, and The Moment of Clarity, on the other. I encourage the both of these books, as they are aides both to business strategy and work as well as to personal life, if applied correctly.

Bringing to consciousness the awareness of one’s own experience as such (in other words, analyzing one’s experience, or reflecting upon it, once it has happened) is a first key step in the acquisition and possession of a deeper self-knowledge, and the way in which people experience themselves and the products they consume–and, you could say, the books that they read (the reader’s experience, in a nutshell)–helps explain why certain things sell, and others don’t; why certain products shape a preference for a particular kind of experience, and therefore a particular way of living.

It’s a project of its own, to understand how you, as a writer, for example, are responsible for building out a project that opens up a new kind of experience in the reader, or one that brings to consciousness a more classic experience: a sense of nostalgia, or basic childlikeness and wonder before a story that feels familiar, and more.

I was pleasantly shocked by these books, given that my undergraduate degree was in the philosophy of the human person (a study of the person, and in its own implicit way, a study of experience).

It’s a bit late for July 4th, but the below is a sort of shout-out to why the American culture can and ought to take the arts more seriously–and this will include, without hesitation, the best fiction. It’s, once more, why I. Love. Agenting.

Enjoy. It’s only 13.5 minutes long.

On Developing Non-Fiction

I love, love, love very intelligent non-fiction published for the popular market. I love it when writers treat readers seriously, and engage their capacity for thoughtful and meaningful dialogue.

Much of my own work on the non-fiction development end requires engaging academics on their area of expertise, both from a philosophical perspective (where philosophy is understood here as the body of theoretical thought underlying a discipline; every discipline has a conceptual theory that underlies it) as well as a reader’s one: Why exactly is this true? Why would you start here? Have you thought about this before? Here’s what I’d want to learn from you.

Sometimes being a literary agent is a little bit like being an academic, and I couldn’t love it more.

While I don’t break the full template in public, here are some general categories for consideration:

  • Book Overview
  • Book Need & Uniqueness
  • Book Structure
  • Expected Manuscript Completion
  • Author Biography
  • Competitive Title Analysis
  • Marketing Plan
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Sample Chapters

One might say that the purview of the development and editorial process here lies to a great extent in the hands of the agent, and so I’ve elected not to share more of my own template for these proposals here, but you can see some more extended questions to consider via another agency here as well as another (former) agent’s list of concepts here.

If you’re interested in working on a non-fiction project with me for the trade market, and have the personal experience, academic expertise, professional expertise, marketing platform, or any combination of these qualities, don’t hesitate to submit an inquiry email to weronika@lightningbugspub.com.