It’s tempting to think that literary greatness affords a form of immortality, but the sad truth is that even great works fall by the wayside, victim to rot or fire or simple loss of interest. Countless lost works have been fully forgotten, but hundreds remain well known despite their absence. Here are eight of the most famous examples of the "gone but not forgotten" genre.
The author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” laid the foundations for Greek literature and for the epic approach to military history and travel writing. But according to Aristotle, Homer also composed a third epic, the “Margites,” which did the same for literary comedy. The epic’s eponymous main character lacked either the bravery of Achilles or the trickery of Odysseus. Rather, he was an idiot—as Plato put it, “he knew many things, but all badly.” The greatest Greek philosophers were impressed by Homer’s dumb-guy humor, but no fragments of the epic survived antiquity. Modern scholars, meanwhile, doubt that Homer was a single man but rather a school of poetic tradition that was given the persona, centuries later, of the blind bard of antiquity.
Between 1403 and 1407 more than 2,000 scholars gathered in the Ming Dynasty capital of Nanjing to compile the largest literary project ever undertaken in China. Their task, dictated by the progressive Yongle Emperor, was to create a compendium of all essential Chinese thought and writing. The end result was a handwritten manuscript that totaled 22,937 chapters collected into 11,095 volumes. The completed project proved too expensive to print, and the later Ming emperors lacked their predecessor’s motivation to promulgate the work. The original manuscript of the Yongle Encyclopedia was lost by the end of the 17th century. In 1860 most of the sole manuscript copy of the work (dating to 1567) was lost during the looting and burning of Beijing by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War. Today just 4 percent of the original encyclopedia remains.