Book Review: Galen: Two Bibliographical Demonstrations

Galen:  Two Bibliographical Demonstrations, by James Finlayson

When I am stuck and not able to get books from the library or even get very much through the mail, it is worthwhile to find odd and old books that one can read that provide insight into questions one is interested in.  Galen is one of the more fascinating figures of the ancient world as a philosopher as well as a physician whose interest included a great deal of interaction with other thinkers and ways of thinking of the age.  This book was apparently part of the efforts by a Scottish physician to make Galen better known through investigating those writings of Galen’s that were available for other doctors and surgeons in Glasgow’s faculty.  The book is certainly successful at pointing out Galen’s thinking and also demonstrating some of the historiographical questions that people have about Galen concerning his relationship with Christianity and with the medical practices of his times in the second century AD.  Since Galen’s writings are not easy to find even now nor are they well known, this book is a short one that does a valuable service in making an obscure but important thinker more familiar to a wider audience, and that is always something to celebrate.

Coming in at 56 pages, including its title page, this is not a long book at all.  It is really a bibliographical essay that is dressed up as a small book, but it is not the worse for it.  The author begins his discussion of Galen by commenting on the fact that Galen’s writings are not often available in translation and are very uncommon, something that remains true today for those of us who are interested in finding out what Galen had to say about creativity, to take an example not at random.  The author has much to say about Galen’s relationship with Christianity as well as with other schools of medicine, showing that he was very critical of the school of Hippocrates while being fond of the man himself, and also being a noted intelligent design thinker.  The second part of the small book is mostly dedicated to talking about the practices and theories of medicine in various types that Galen involved himself in, showing himself to have been a very complex and wide-ranging practitioner as well as scholar, making this book a good introduction to the man and his thinking.

This book is written without a lot of flash or polish, but one of the best things about the book that can be said is that the author has a point to make and makes it and does not feel it necessary to fluff out the book to a large size in order to make it more appealing to publishers.  While a book of this brevity would not be published in the contemporary publishing world, more than likely, at the time it was not thought to be a bad thing to write a short book when one’s subject matter is small and one wishes to only give a taste of materials and not to take up more of a reader’s time than necessary in order to accomplish one’s goal of making something known.  It is to be regretted that our own writing habits encourage writers to expand a book’s length without necessarily expanding the worth of the material that is located in those pages simply because a book that is 250 pages will be taken seriously by a reader while a book of 80 pages or less likely will not be taken seriously by a publisher to have the chance to be taken seriously by the reader.  Thankfully, this was not the case in the late 19th century when this book was written.

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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