On 7 November there was a panel discussion at New York University’s Institute for the Humanities entitled “Writing Lost and Found: How Books Disappear and are Rediscovered”.

The focus was, quite appropriately, on celebrating the “rediscovery” of the four books under discussion. Three of the books were translations, and one discussant did allow as how the previous translations were partly responsible for the need for a new version. Jenny McPhee, who translated Natalia Ginsburg’s Lessico famigliare, said that while the original remains eternally fresh, translations need to be updated from time to time. Not because they are no good, but because readers’ expectations change. There is much to this. No Spanish reader would ever suggest that Don Quixote needs to be rewritten, but we are perfectly justified in thinking that we shouldn’t have to read it in the 17th century English of Thomas Shelton.

Of course that one never got lost. The easiest way to lose a book is to forget all about it. The second easiest way is to have its one existing copy burnt in a fire. The Library of Alexandria may have been burnt by accident when Julius Caesar invaded, or maybe the fire was the result of religious riots as recounted by Gibbon, or most notoriously set by Caliph Omar who regarded books as unnecessary since “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” We don’t really know what was lost in this fire, but you can’t stop writers riffing on the subject. It’s become a sort of metaphor for the loss of the one remaining copy in existence. We have 18 plays by Euripides, but we believe he wrote over 90. Maybe one or two’ll turn up having escaped the flames.

They couldn’t find Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan and Gormenghast during the evacuation of the Gormenghast library which had been set on fire by his sisters Cora and Clarice under the Machiavellian Steerpike’s direction. When they found Sepulchrave “he was smoothing the backs of a set of the Martrovian dramatists bound in gold fibre and there was a smile on his face which sent a sick pang through the bodies of the three who found him.” They got him out but the library was burned down. “The shelves that still stood were wrinkled charcoal, and the books were standing side by side upon them, black, grey, and ash-white, the corpses of thought.”

So we are all of us destined to live in ignorance of those Martrovian dramatists, the Sonian poets, and of course so much more. Corpses of thought is good; but of course the physical book could itself often be described in just this way. Sitting ignored on a library shelf, on lots of library shelves around the world, there must be many a book we know nothing of, each eager to be opened by a curious student and thus revivified. One can visualize that determined reader, fighting his way through the thorn entanglements around the palace library to reach his sleeping beauty, the works of the Martrovian dramatists. It’s harder to explain why a book becomes a living corpse though. It’s not just a matter of not being taken out of the library: though librarians constantly analyze unborrowed volumes as “mustie” books, and “crew” them every now and then.

Lost is lost. Maybe a copy will be found, but nobody knows where it might be, or whether there’s any there there anyway. But lost is also forgotten. We’ve got several copies, but don’t really care. Now of course not all forgotten books are great books. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but most of what we publish is actually not really very good. It’s easy enough to see how that 1950s Your Big Book of Flower Arranging or that sensational robber-romance from 1845 would get forgotten. Nobody needs to remember them. But many forgotten books are excellent books. An example quoted at the meeting is the complete oeuvre of John Williams which has been forgotten on at least two occasions before its recent resuscitation by New York Review Books.

“Forgotten” could once upon a time be used almost synonymously with “out of print”. When publishers couldn’t sell enough copies of a book to justify reprinting it, it’d just drop out of the catalog. For a year or two you’d get the odd order for the book and you’d send the answer OP: and that was that. Nobody had a mechanism for checking whether there were enough orders to warrant bringing the book back. Remember that in those days printing a book meant printing a couple of thousand books at least, and they’d have to be paid for and stored while the small demand munched its way through your holdings. So, when you sold the last copy of a book, you tended to heave a sigh of relief and keep your focus on moving forward.

But I suspect that there were quite a few books that paradoxically became forgotten because they remained in print. In those olden days publishers would often overprint a book. As printed books are an asset, wasting them is a cost. Temptation to hold onto the books hoping that demand will magically pick up can easily cloud judgement. This means that such a book might remain locked up in the publisher’s warehouse for years with nothing effectively being done with it. If the rights had reverted to the author when demand collapsed it would have been possible for a different edition to have come out which might have attracted buyers.

Now we have evolved a technological solution, print-on-demand, which means that you can print as many or as few as you wish. This means a book need never go out of print: all you need to do is set it up for POD and await that odd order. The book won’t be printed until after someone has ordered it. This means no matter how few may ever sell, the publisher is not incurring any extra cost. Ebooks reinforce this situation, but require more investment to bring about, especially if they are older books. What print-on-demand means is that in potentio every book ever published might be made eternally available. So the concept of a lost book would move to being an ignored book. Actually I think Neglected Books has the mot juste here. Someone could look at this book, but nobody does: it’s just neglected. Some day we may manage to develop assessment tools which will be able to direct us through this mass of material and tell us which items we might enjoy. In the meantime there are publishers making hay by bringing back into print good books which have slipped into the abyss of neglect. These reprint publishers, who tend not to be using POD, just printing the smaller runs permitted by modern printing set-ups, are effectively taking something lost and placing it before us, saying “Look at this. You’ll love it”. For the downside of all this however, please see Forgotten books.

I suspect that readers can be divided into as many types as there are readers, but probably a majority of them feels some sort of need “to keep up”. As new books are published, there’s always something new clamoring for our attention. Inevitably yesterday’s books will begin to slip into oblivion. If we didn’t publish so many of the damn things there would be fewer neglected books!