Academic in dust-up over book `based on a hoax'

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The Independent Online
David Selbourne, philosopher and former Oxford academic who had a public falling-out with Ruskin College a decade ago, is at odds with the academic establishment again, this time in the US.

Little, Brown, has postponed publication of his latest book, The City of Light, after scholars said they thought it was based on a hoax. The book is his translation of a manuscript his publishers and the New York Times presented as likely to rewrite history - if genuine. An account of a visit to China by Jacob d'Ancona, a 13th-century Italian, it was said to predate Marco Polo's account of his journey to China by four years.

But pre-publication publicity brought a chorus of dismissal from US sinologists. Jonathan Spence, a historian at Yale, said that when he reviewed the book he would dismiss it as a fake, arguing in particular that descriptions of daily life, philosophical concepts and sexual practices did not accord with what is known of the times.

Selbourne, who lives in Italy, says he was allowed to see the manuscript and publish his translated edition of it only on condition that he did not show the original text to anyone else or divulge any information about its owner. This, according to his critics, leaves a big question-mark over its authenticity.