Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Book Nobody Read

This is the title of a book I've borrowed from the local library, and found a good read. It is subtitled "In Pursuit of the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus" and is by Owen Gingerich, a Professor of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard. The title comes from a comment by Arthur Koestler in his book The Sleepwalkers, which also has a long subtitle: "A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe" (1959). This has long been a favourite book of my own. Koestler thought that nobody actually read Copernicus. Gingerich spent years examining all the extant copies of the first and second editions in European and American Libraries to produce a Census detailing their differences and annotations. The books were issued as loose sheets and it was up to the buyer to arrange for the binding, so they tend to vary a lot and can be individually identified. He has often been called in to identify stolen copies that come up for auction. Some examples, that he calls "sophisticated ladies", are made up from two or more damaged copies. Quite a high proportion of the original editions survive, and everyone who was anyone in astronomy evidently had one, and often annotated them. I was always taught never to write in books, but it seems annotated books are of greater interest to historians, so perhaps this advice was wrong!

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