Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bookish Mystery - Meanderings of Memory

A week or two ago, I noticed that I was approaching 1500 posts for this blog. I thought it would be nice to do something special for that post and stumbled across this bookish mystery soon after.  Coincidence?

Yes, probably but what a happy coincidence it is.

According to the Wikipedia article on this, Meanderings of Memory is a lost book. Despite the fact that it was cited as a "first or early source for over 50 entries" in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the current OED editors (and presumably by extension, everyone else) have not been able to locate a copy.

This mystery came to light in 2013, when a staffer involved in the ongoing revision of the OED sought to verify the earliest citation of the work but couldn't find the source (Meanderings of Memory). After looking at the original archival slips, it appears that these citations were from someone called Edward Peacock, who by all accounts was a credible source.

Unable to find the book, the OED posted an open appeal for information (this was before they found out that who the contributor was). While it is possible that the book never existed, Edward Peacock's other contributions were reliable, and the book has been found in several catalogues, making it unlikely to be a hoax.

Meanderings of Memory is supposed to have been written in 1852 by someone named 'Nightlark' (which was probably a pseudonym). Veronica Hurst, the chief bibliographer hypothesizes that based on the language, Meanderings of Memory may be a "flowery" book of poetry "five to ten pages long". It's also possible that the reason why a surviving copy doesn't exist is because the book was pornographic or published through some unusual method.

Both the comments on the OED appeal page and a Reddit thread throw up some interesting theories, such as the possibility that Edward Peacock was Nightlark. Another theory I read suggests that since the Latin epigraph of the book (which we know from the catalogues) reference a Philomena, who in Greek mythology transformed into a nightingale, this could mean that Nightlark was a lady poetess. If you're interested, I would suggest reading both pages for more information and theories.

I'm not sure if this is a mystery that will ever be solved, but it's certainly one of the more interesting bookish mysteries that I've come across!


  1. How fascinating! I had never heard of this before. I wonder what the real story behind it is, if the theories are correct or if there's another story behind it all together.

    1. I hope we get to find out some day - perhaps someone somewhere has a copy but doesn't know about its significance?


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