“The Book of Lost Books” concerns itself with two main subjects: books that have disappeared, either through negligence, deliberate destruction or the vicissitudes of history; and books that never got written in the first place. Ranging over authors as famous as Homer, Hemingway, Austen and Aristophanes, it also contains chapters devoted to non-marquee names like Widsith the Wide-Traveled, Fulgentius, Ahmad ad-Daqiqi and Faltonia Betitia Proba.
Each chapter contains abundant biographical information about the author in question, then proceeds to explain how one or more of his or her books was lost, stolen, mutilated, bowdlerized, incinerated or abandoned.
Kelly seems to grudgingly accept that we are lucky so much great literature has survived, but would be a whole lot luckier if cultural pyromaniacs had refrained from burning down the library at Alexandria once and for all nearly a millennium and a half ago, where the only complete copy of Aeschylus’ 80 plays had been housed for a thousand years.
Occasionally Kelly gets lost inside his sentences; it’s anyone’s guess what he’s ranting about early in the book when he repeats the accusation by Lasus of Hermione that Onomacritus might have been guilty of misattribution, nay forgery, in his edition of Musaeus. In other places, he can turn pedantic; discussing the language of the “Iliad,” he writes: “Predominantly in the Ionic dialect, it contains traces of the Aeolic, hints of Arcado-Cypriot.” Mr. Kelly: behave!
But these occasional lapses quickly give way to delightful vignettes like the one about a critic thrown off a cliff by “irate Athenians who objected to his carping criticism of the divine Homer.” Today, if anyone got thrown off a cliff, it would be for complaining about Oprah.