The Book Nobody Read

March 26th, 2007

I’ve just finished Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read, a history of CopernicusDe revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

De revolutionibus is a very important book, but it was once labeled “The Book Nobody Read”, due to its extremely technical fashion. The book gives the Copernican heliocentric theory, but also included a lot of technical details.

Gingerich’s book has a couple of elements – firstly, he discusses the history of the book, and how it was, in fact, widely read and influential at the time. But the really fascinating part comes as he discusses his obsessive quest to document every existing copy of the first and second editions of the book. The first bit is interesting (although dry), but the second bit is fascinating. I always love reading about the obsessions of other people (having so many of my own), and the book draws a vivid picture of the fairly laid back obsessive way that he approached the task.

One of the most interesting elements is the discussion of the marginal annotations found in very many of the existing copies of De revolutionibus. The old days where you read not only the book, but the comments left by previous readers, have a kind of romance that we miss now with every purchase being a new book. I remember back in the days of the borrowing cards in the back of books always enjoying the history of the book, something that electronic systems these days miss out on.

It’s an excellent book, well worth reading.