Books Lost and To Be Found

It’s easy to get published these days. More books are published each year than the average bookstore can hold. Websites like make self-publishing easy. And there is always Amazon Kindle.

Yet a recent article in The Guardian caught my eye. It suggests the key to understanding our literature may not be how many books have been published, but how many have been lost through the ages.

For example, the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt was accidentally set ablaze by Julius Caesar during a Roman civil war in 48 BC ( How much was destroyed?

Two scholars, Mike Kestemont and Folgert Karsdorp, have been estimating the survival rate of manuscripts created in different parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Using “unseen species” modelling, a statistical method used in ecology, they’ve been working backwards from the distribution of what we have today to estimate what must have existed in the past.

The calculations they published in Science magazine earlier this year are pretty grim. They concluded that 90% of medieval manuscripts preserving chivalric and heroic narratives are gone. The reasons are many — usually fire, but also other disasters, decay and recycling, and even censorship, incompetence and corruption. Of the stories themselves, about a third have been lost completely; no manuscripts preserving them remain. What’s even grimmer, these figures match those arrived at by other methods.

They also consider how representative the stories and manuscripts that have managed to survive are. Medieval Irish and Icelandic narrative fiction seems to have lasted much better than their English counterparts. One reason might be that the practice of copying texts by hand persisted for much longer in Iceland and Ireland than in England; more copies existed to increase the odds of something surviving.

And this is just in Europe. Fires and other disasters also played havoc with literary collections in India, China and other civilizations.

To complicate matters further, not only are there works that have been lost, but there are many more that have yet to be discovered. For example, the number of ancient manuscripts in the Indian and Buddhist traditions that have survived but have not yet been studied is estimated to be anywhere from 10 million to 30 million. There simply aren’t enough scholars with the right expertise to examine them.

So as rich are our literary heritage is, who knows what has been lost? Or is yet to be found?

Taken from “The Big Idea: Could the Greatest Works of Literature be Undiscovered?” by Laura Spinney (

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