Book Review: The Book Nobody Read

The Book Nobody Read:  Chasing The Revolutions Of Nicolaus Copernicus, by Owen Gingerich

The author takes as his title for book a reference from novelist Arthur Koestler [1], who thought that the masterpiece by Copernicus was a worst seller that no one read.  The author, apparently, spent decades proving this was not the case.  This book is the sort of treasure hunt that is most of interest to fellow book nerds, but if you like somewhat obsessive looks at massively important books with strong concerns about book theft and the way that people can make a book interesting by adding their own notes to it [1], this is a really interesting book.  I really enjoyed reading this book and thought that the author’s work as a whole is something worth paying attention to.  It was something I found myself very able to relate to, although I’m not sure if it says anything bad about me that I could see myself engaged in a quest lasting for decades to determine all that people wrote in the margins of a book as well as all of the people who could be determined to have owned a book.  At any rate, I was able to relate to it and found a worthwhile book.

This particular book takes around 250 pages to cover a decades long quest by the author to attempt to catalog the provenance and contents and marginalia of every single possible first and second edition of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus that he can find, as well as related works that help to uncover the context of sixteenth and seventeenth century astronomy and related subjects as diverse as medicine and astrology.  The quest leads him to book auctions, through libraries and private collections, around Europe and the United States and even a few more distant places, to trade the path of a famous book that helped launch a revolution in science.  This trail is a bit rambling and disorganized but it is also fascinating, involving compromise scientific plans like that of Tycho Brahe, rebellious German mathematicians and an invisible college of connected European scholars and thinkers connected outside of formal institutional positions.  The book manages to involve a great deal of famous and near-famous figures from Galileo to Kepler to Mercator to John Dee and even Scottish economist Adam Smith.  Included in this are discussions of book binding processes and even a discussion of the fascinating link between medieval Muslim astronomy and the insights of Copernicus.

It is clear before one gets too far into this book that Copernicus’ masterpiece was a book that is not only viewed highly by contemporary scientists and historians and philosophers of science but that it was also a book that a great many of early modern Europe’s greatest minds actually read somewhat seriously and reflected on and it was embedded in concerns about aesthetic preferences and physical reality as well as a period in which astrologers, strange as it may seem to us, were a critical part of the early efforts at better calculating the path of the planets.  Although a great deal of this book rambles between many odd stories, these stories demonstrate the way that science comes alive through the relationships and studies and investigations of human beings who remain human even when they happen to be really great scientists.  The author too shows himself to be a person of great interest in a wide variety of subjects and manages to come off as humane and delightfully quirky.  In its odd wandering and its tale about historians and philosophers and scientists, this is a book that is an odd book for odd people.  It ought to be little wonder that such a book is enjoyable to me.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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