The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus ,
The following is how Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus might begin if the subject had been written by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003):
Professor Owen Gingerich was awakened by the phone. “I’m sorry to disturb you in the middle of the night,” said the heavily accented voice of the police inspector in the small town of Wolfenbüttel, home to one of the world’s great libraries. “Our curator of rare books was just found murdered in his office. We found him in front of a copy of Copernicus’s book, the one you were examining a few hours ago. In his last moments he penciled a line around a passage, which we hope is a clue. Can you help us?”
Although lacking the murder, mayhem, and mysticism of such bestsellers as The Da Vinci Code or Rule of Four (Dial Press, 2004) by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, Gingerich’s book inadvertently echoes their exciting prose with historical tales of intrigue, heresy, and great discovery. However, his work surpasses these novels by giving us actual history and real-world puzzles in place of the pseudoscholarship of the potboilers.
The Book Nobody Read is really a book about a book about a book. Gingerich is one of the most energetic and prominent scholars of the Copernican revolution. His An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Brill Academic, 2002) catalogs copies of that epochal work and traces their provenance, annotations, and other interesting features.
Gingerich’s latest book is essentially an account of the conception and the making of the census. His extensive travels to find and inspect copies of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium provide grist for seemingly countless anecdotes and sidelights. But his first-person account is far from a strict narrative. The author draws on his three decades of work to form chapters that are roughly thematic. Some of those chapters treat historical questions, such as the intellectual relationships between Copernican scholars as traced through the annotations found in copies of De Rev. Other chapters reflect on books as objects—for example, how the craft of printing shaped early books and their unexpected peregrinations from generation to generation. And some chapters focus on the relationships between people and rare books as expensive collectibles. I found the latter particularly intriguing. Gingerich’s deep knowledge of that particular group of books is intimate: He knows them as individuals, and he recounts several stories of thefts, thwarted sales of stolen copies, and unfinished investigations.
The Book Nobody Read, whose title is an ironic reference to the opinion of novelist Arthur Koestler on De Rev, is also a window into the evolution of the historical understanding in recent years of the Copernican revolution. Gingerich describes how he and other historians, notably Edward Rosen and Robert Westman, sometimes debated, sometimes competed, and ultimately collaborated to better understand the reception of the Copernican theory. The insight that Gingerich offers into the formation of current historical views of the subject was a source of mild frustration for me, because the focus on the book as object is so intense that readers might not appreciate the intellectual history behind it. Also, the highly idiosyncratic account Gingerich provides creates its own questions: I kept wondering how Westman, who was simultaneously working on editions of De Rev, would tell the story of unraveling the families of annotations in De Rev.
Although the book’s shortcomings are mostly irritants, the worst is the nearly constant stream of digressive footnotes. Many, perhaps most, of the footnotes are worth reading, but Gingerich should have found a place for them in the main text, where the mere act of reading them would not have interrupted the flow of the writing.
Despite my impatience with stumbling over the footnotes, the book is still well worth reading. Gingerich does an admirable job of treating many technical points in the history of astronomy. He explains fascinating details of early modern printing and book production that provide the clues to unmask fakes and to distinguish pristine copies from genuine, “sophisticated” ones. His narrative wanders into Johannes Kepler’s calculation foibles, Tycho Brahe’s legal troubles, and Galileo’s lunar drawings, among other digressions, but the story always finds its way back to the relationships of the original, surviving copies of De Rev. Gingerich also brings in Latin paleography and early modern typography, both of which offer insight into the creation of De Rev.
With that said, the book’s tone is rarely didactic and sometimes very clever; it allows the historical figures themselves to come forth in the story. I particularly enjoyed glimpses of Andreas Osiander, the Lutheran pastor of Nuremberg who, without Coperincus’s knowledge, inserted the notorious “Preface to the Reader” in De Rev. That preface left unwary readers with the impression that Copernicus himself was proposing something well short of a dramatic shift in cosmological thinking. Osiander emerges from the shadows here and there in Gingerich’s book, guilty of provoking confusion among readers of De Rev
Overall, I enjoyed The Book Nobody Read and learned a lot. More books by historians of science should be like it.