My favorite books are those of high adventure and treasure hunting! I love puzzles and hidden chambers, the pirate maps and booby traps, speculations and legend, point A and a tricky obstacle to the point B. While looking up a few facts about my favorite books, I often come across interesting stories of hidden treasures and strange messages in real life. Here I want to share some of them in hopes of passing on the literary gold rush to others. Looking at these stories I start to imagine how our understanding of this world might alter if only the lost things could be found again. It fascinates me. Please feel free to organize an expedition for the lost treasures of literature, but don’t forget to invite me along!
Many people have at least heard of Lawrence of Arabia; some may even know that he wrote an extensive memoir about his experiences in the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Empire that Lawrence titled “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. He had most of the first draft (around 250,000 words) finished in late 1919, when he boarded the train at Reading railway station. Unfortunately the briefcase that held everything but a few pieces of the book got misplaced during the transfer, never to be seen again. An announcement was put in the local newspapers in hopes of somebody turning the manuscript in, but to no avail. The following year Lawrence dedicated himself to rewriting the manuscript, but had to do most of it from memory, as he had burnt all his war-time notes after finishing the lost draft. Lesson learned: handcuff the briefcase with your unpublished book to your wrist and never burn your notes as celebratory ritual.
Thanks to a similar case of lost luggage we may never see the early writings of the famous Earnest Hemingway. His first wife Hadley was traveling around Europe with a trunk full of Hemigway’s manuscripts, including the novel based on his experiences in WWI. Perhaps it was not in the stars for the author to gain recognition at this early stage of his life, because the trunk got stolen on the way. The incident shook the man greatly, and some even believe, contributed to his divorce from Hadley. Hemingway even once mentioned that he wouldn’t mind a brain surgery if it helped to take the painful memory out of his head. None of the works lost were ever re-written, so the only way to take a peek at what was inside the manuscripts is to find the stolen trunk.
If you are a struggling writer trying to get your piece of the pie, you might sympathize with poor Edgar Allen Poe. At the beginning of his career nobody really knew who he was, and no publisher was knocking at his door. So the good guy Poe put together some writing he called “Tamerlane and Other Poems” and paid out of his pocket to publish fifty copies of the manuscript. To his disappointment the book didn’t catch on and he remained a struggling writer for the next twenty years until his Raven was released. The small number of the publications made first editions ridiculously scarce and precious. Only twelve copies are known to exist today. However, there is hope for you treasure hunters: there are might be more Tamerlanes out there, unrecognized and stuffed in some pile of junk. The trick is that the book does not carry the name of its author on the cover, but attributed only to “A Bostonian”. It would not be all that shocking for someone to just overlook the hidden gem hidden under the strange inscription. One of the said copies was bought in the 80’s for $15 at an antique store, and ended up fetching almost $200,000 at an auction a month later. Talk about lucky hand!
Those of you who love their Bard of Avon must have heard the story of the legendary “Cardenio”. It was performed by The King’s Men in May of 1613, but nobody knows anything about the play beyond its title. Scholars speculate that the play is somehow tied to “Don Quixote” that has a character named Cardenio. They base this speculation on the fact that the English translation of the first known novel was released about the same time. Unfortunately, Cardenio was never in the Shakespear’s famous folio, and there is no description of the play in any contemporary documents. Perhaps the mysterious play is out there, waiting to be found. And if found, it would tie the most prominent playwright to the pioneer of novel in an ultimate mix of literary genius.
If you’re in the mood for some puzzle solving, the Voynich manuscript might be a good literary treasure to ponder upon. It is often christened “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”, and dates to about 15th century. The book is written in a strange language, which some people call either a brilliant specimen of cryptography or a brilliant fake. Either way, nobody so far could break it. The manuscript seems to be an herbal catalogue of medicinal plants and their application, but the illustrations provided on almost every page seldom match any known species of flora found here on Earth. Was it some kind of elaborate hoax? Was it a speculative work of fiction by some scientist who had lots of time on his hands? Was the manuscript dropped off by some aliens and those are plants of other worlds we are looking at? Maybe you’ll be the person to give us the answers. Currently the manuscript is stored at Yale University under the name of “Cipher Manuscript”, waiting to be understood.