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The Unpublished Manuscripts of 7 Famous Authors

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Not every work by a great author ends up topping bestseller lists. Some never make it onto the shelves to begin with, because they've either been stolen, destroyed, or locked inside a literary time capsule. Here are some unpublished manuscripts that never reached the same level of fame as the authors who wrote them.

1. THE ISLE OF THE CROSS // HERMAN MELVILLE

Following the commercial failures of Moby Dick and Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, Herman Melville was due for a stroke of luck. Unfortunately, his next novel, The Isle of the Cross, didn’t deliver it. The book reportedly drew from a true story Melville had heard on a trip to Nantucket about Agatha Hatch, the daughter of a Massachusetts lighthouse keeper who married a sailor only to be abandoned by him while she was pregnant—and have him return 17 years later. Melville encouraged his literary friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to turn the tale into a novel, but he turned down the offer, prompting Melville to write it himself. Harper’s, his publisher, rejected the work, though the motive remains unclear. Some have suggested that the publishers wanted to avoid any potential legal blowback from relatives of Hatch who may have recognized themselves in the work. Any copies of the manuscript have been lost to time.

2. OUR MARRIED LIFE, JOHNSON, THE MYSTERY OF BONITA, AND MOLLY OODLE // L. FRANK BAUM

The fiction of L. Frank Baum wasn’t confined to the wonderful world of Oz. He penned several books aimed at mature audiences during his lifetime. If you're unfamiliar with this section of his work, there’s a good reason: Four of his adult novels—Our Married Life (1912), Johnson (1912), The Mystery of Bonita (1914), and Molly Oodle (1915)—were never published. Baum’s oldest son Frank alleged in his memoir that his mother had set the manuscripts on fire, though many suspect he lied about this to get back at her for bumping him from her will.

3. DOUBLE EXPOSURE (OR DOUBLETAKE) // SYLVIA PLATH

Sylvia Plath died of suicide at the early age of 30, leaving the world with her first and only novel, The Bell Jar. At least, that’s how it appeared until her widower Ted Hughes (also a writer) revealed in his 1977 memoir that Plath had been working on a second book. In the year leading up to her death, Plath was writing an autobiographical novel titled Double Exposure or Doubletake. Supposedly, the book dealt with the disintegration of Plath’s marriage to Hughes. Hughes gives a cursory mention of the piece in his book, writing that Plath had “typed some 130 pages of another novel” (he later changed the number to 60 or 70 pages), and that the manuscript “disappeared somewhere around 1970.” The exact fate of the novel, or even whether or not it was completed, is still unknown. Given that it likely painted an unflattering picture of the adulterous Hughes, there are those who suspect the “disappearance” wasn’t a complete accident.

4. THE POOR MAN AND THE LADY // THOMAS HARDY

In 1868-69, Thomas Hardy submitted his first novel to a couple London publishing houses. While the publishers apparently expressed interest, their reader George Meredith suggested it be withdrawn it from consideration for fear that it would hurt Hardy’s young career. Meredith allegedly went so far as to meet with Hardy to deliver his advice in person—though according to the 1921 biography Thomas Hardy, Poet & Novelist, it’s also possible that the book was rejected right off the bat.

Hardy recalled years later that Meredith had derided the book for being overly philosophical and satirical. Though he held on to the manuscript throughout his career as a successful poet and novelist, he ultimately destroyed it years before his death.

5. UNFINISHED WORLD WAR I NOVEL // ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The theft of a suitcase filled with early Hemingway work was one of the most infamous events in the history of literature. The crime occurred after Hadley, Ernest’s first wife, brought all of her husband’s writings from their Paris home to Switzerland—where he was covering the Lausanne Peace Conference—to show fellow author Lincoln Steffens. But the package never reached its destination; the bag of papers was stolen from Hadley’s seat on the train before she arrived. The lost work included the carbon copies and originals of all his short stories, as well as an in-progress World War I novel. Hemingway never attempted a rewrite of those works; he went on to author The Sun Also Rises instead.

6. PRINCE JELLYFISH // HUNTER S. THOMPSON

Before Hunter S. Thompson pioneered his Gonzo style of journalism, he attempted to launch a career as a novelist. His first book, Prince Jellyfish, was an autobiographical tale that followed a boy from Louisville trying to make it in the big city. The manuscript was rejected by publishers, and Thompson later admitted that it had been forgettable. His next fiction project was The Rum Diaries, a story inspired by his time as a journalist living in Puerto Rico. That book also went unpublished until his friend Johnny Depp rediscovered it at his home in 1998. The actor was the one who encouraged Thompson to finally get the book in print.

7. SCRIBBLER MOON // MARGARET ATWOOD

Unlike many works on this list, Margaret Atwood’s Scribbler Moon isn’t lost. The story is safe inside a special room at the Deichmanske Public Library in Norway, but it won’t be read until 2114.

Atwood’s manuscript marked the first entry into the Future Library. Conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, the literary time capsule will gain one original piece from a prominent author every year for the next 100 years. As the century trickles down, a forest of saplings planted outside Oslo in 2014 will flourish. When the contents of the library are ready to be seen, the trees will be chopped down and made into paper for the stories to be printed on. Most of Atwood’s present-day fans likely won’t be around to read her contribution, but if you’re feeling optimistic about your chances of living well into the next century, or if you want to do something nice for your offspring, you can reserve a copy of the Future Library collection in its entirety for $1000.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Trash Collectors in Turkey Use Abandoned Books to Build a Free Library
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A stack of books abandoned on the sidewalk can be a painful sight for bibliophiles. But in Ankara, Turkey, garbage collectors are using books left to be discarded to build a free library. As CNN reports, their library of salvaged literature is currently 6000 titles strong.

The collection grew gradually as sanitation workers began saving books they found on their routes, rather then hauling them away with the rest of the city’s trash. The books were set aside for employees and their families to borrow, but eventually news of their collection expanded beyond the sanitation department. Instead of leaving books on the curb, residents started donating their unwanted books directly to the cause. Soon the idea arose of opening a full library for the public to enjoy.

Man reading book at shelf.
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With support from the local government, the library opened in the Çankaya district of Ankara in September 2017. Located in an abandoned brick factory on the sanitation department’s property, it features literature for children, resources for scientists, and books for English and French speakers. The space also includes a lounge where visitors can read their books or play chess. The loan period for books lasts two weeks, but just like at a regular library, readers are given the option to renew their tomes.

People reading books in a library.
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The experiment has proven more successful than anyone anticipated: The library is so well-stocked that local schools, prisons, and educational programs can now borrow from its inventory. The Turkish sanitation workers deserve high praise, but discarded book-loving pioneers in other parts of the world should also get some recognition: For decades, José Alberto Gutiérrez has been using his job collecting garbage to build a similar library in Colombia.

[h/t CNN]

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