The Impossible Library

One of many things which fascinate me, as a bibliophile, is the space where a book ought to be. If you’re a classicist you will have spotted some of these conspicuous spaces: at the end of Tacitus’ Annals where the second half of Book 16 ought to be, perhaps, or the missing books of Livy’s history which reputedly led Augustus to describe him as a Pompeian. These gaps are not completely empty, because the books have left impressions behind, in summaries and comments and quotations by later writers. Using other sources we can deduce the size of the gap, and see a ghost of its original occupant.

But what of the books which haven’t left a shadow behind? If there existed, somewhere, a library of all the great works which have been lost, what would it have on its shelves?

Let me take you, then, on a tour of my very own Impossible Library, containing all of the books that I wish I could see. In it I’ve included books which once existed and books which were rumoured to have existed, and some books that never were. It’s likely that none of these books will ever be found – but who knows…?




My Impossible Library starts with the Sibylline books, the Libri Fatales: all nine volumes, of course, including the six which were burned by the Sibyl when Tarquinius Superbus refused to buy them. The remaining three were so powerful that they were kept under constant guard by ten men, lest they change the world. Naturally they deserve a place in my bookcase.

Also in my library is the full text of all the works attributed to Homer, among them the comic Margites, about a man who ‘knew many things, but he knew them badly’, as well as the five books of the Nostoi, the sequel to the Iliad.

I have Ovid’s only play, Medea, and Augustus’ memoirs, De Vita Sua. I have all of Caesar’s works, and Suetonius’ lost massive history of Rome. I have the early Roman playwrights and annalists, from Ennius to Pictor, and the missing works of the Greek lyric poets. And of course my bookshelves hold the lost bits of Tacitus’ Annals.

Sadly my Impossible Library only exists in my imagination, and in a painting on the wall of my real library. But it’s a reminder that all the works we study, and all the evidence we use, give only a fragment of the full picture. My library may be impossible, but it’s also important, as a reminder of how much we don’t know.


Cora Beth Knowles


2 thoughts on “The Impossible Library

  1. Hi Cora, as a fellow bibliophile I can relate. I’ve often pondered the same conundrum, that the vast majority of all human culture ever created is inaccessible to us. How many Shakesperes and Goethes died unknown? Your article reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges short story ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ an infinite library of hexagonal rooms, containing all books that ever existed, or like your wall painting, all books that could ever exist. It has translations of all books in all languages and commentaries on commentaries ab aeterno. Borges even says that it has your lost works of Tacitus! But before you get excited and go looking for them, there’s no catalogue so it may take your whole life to find them! There will also be an infinite series of variations on them… So the job of sorting out all the textual corruptions or even determining anything at all that Tacitus actually wrote is even worse than Latinists’ usual nightmares!

    Of what Donald Rumsfeld would call the “known unknowns” I’ve always wondered what the original works of the presocratics would have been like, or the vast majority of roman scientists who weren’t as chatty as Galen! As for the “unknown unknowns” who knows? Some say the works that survived did so as they were the best, our whole concept of “classics” or the “canonical works” as Schaps would put it. If we had everything, would we really have any notion of “classics”?


  2. Do not let your imagination, in which you keep your “Impossible Library”, be trammelled by what might appear to be temporary setbacks. The late, great metaphysical writer W.G.Sebald relates, at some length, the difficulties in locating the actual skull of Thomas Browne who, in the 17th century, had “left a number of writings that defy all comparisons” (Sebald, W.G. 2002, “The Rings of Saturn”, London, Vintage, p.9). Despite the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 1911 edition clearly stating that it was kept under lock and key in the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, it appeared to have disappeared. Remember! This is the actual cranium which protected the brain from which this inimitable imagination emanated. Through rigorous research, Sebald succeeded in solving the mystery of its second internment “almost a quarter of a millennium after the first burial…[which]…Browne himself, in his famous part-archaeological and part metaphysical treatise. “Urn Burial”, offers the most fitting commentary on the subsequent odyssey of his own skull…” (Sebald, ibid, p.11). Tantalisingly, Sebald goes on to opine that Browne is quite possibly a member of the audience in Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson” in the Mauritshuis, in The Hague which, as you are aware, is only a ferry and train journey from where you wrote your article where we could actually see him if only we knew who was who. Your musings about your “Impossible Library”, from my perspective,seem quite rational, therefore. The only real question is how deep and tall would the shelves need to be?


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