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  • The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
  • Geert Vanpaemel
Owen Gingerich . The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. New York: Walker & Company, 2004. xiv + 306 pp. + 8 color pls. index. append. illus. map. bibl. $25. ISBN: 0–8027–1415–3.

In an effort to highlight the pivotal role of Kepler in the history of Western astronomy, Arthur Koestler once dubbed Copernicus's epoch-making DeRevolutionibus of 1543, the "book nobody read." The book was long time supposed to be too technical and too difficult ever to reach a wide audience. Even before the book was condemned by the Roman church in 1616, it was apparently forgotten by almost everyone — or was it? In 1970, during the worldwide preparations for the three-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of De Revolutionibus, the Harvard astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich set out to answer this very question: who — if any — were these rare readers of De Revolutionibus and how was the book in fact received among the European learned elites? An examination of the extant copies of the book could possibly offer some clues. It seemed at the time a straightforward enterprise; however, it would take him three decades of searching catalogues, traveling to libraries on four continents, and painstakingly recording the tiniest details of every copy he got his hands on, before he could finally publish in 2002 An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus. His census showed that Copernicus's book was indeed well studied by many and did launch the revolution that carries his name. Not only did Gingerich discover more than 600 first and second editions (1543 and 1566) of the famous book, but more importantly, he discovered many clues concerning the identity of their owners and readers, and he made a detailed analyses of the many notes inserted or copied in the margins. The spectacular results of this "Great Copernican Chase" have since become part of the new consensus among historians on the early phases of the Copernican Revolution.

This book is not simply a popular account of what Gingerich has published in more scholarly volumes and articles. It is a highly personal memoir of how the search for copies of De Revolutionibus developed into an absorbing experience, even an obsession. Starting from the first, quite unexpected discovery of a richly annotated copy in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Gingerich went to great pains to inspect copies from St. Gallen to Bejing, from St. Petersburg to San Diego. Characteristically, a first look at one copy does not reveal all of its secrets at once. More recent discoveries lead to the reexamination of other copies, new hypotheses shed new light on documents one has already examined with great care. It is particularly instructive to see how Gingerich's expertise grows over the years. As a reader of books, he learns to look at small material details of the copies, appreciating the technical aspects of the printing process. The reader is in turn instructed in the various intricacies of the book trade, the management of book collections in the sixteenth century, or the contemporary practices of book antiquarians, who sometimes produce "new" volumes by dismantling and recomposing incomplete copies. Gingerich takes the reader into the courtroom where stolen books need to be identified. He leads him into the reading rooms of some of the most important [End Page 994] libraries in the world, where the precious copies are handled with the utmost care (or perhaps not — to the despair of historians). Every chapter of the book holds new surprises, delightful stories, and interesting notes. Gingerich also generously acknowledges the important contributions of some of his colleagues, most notably Jerzy Dobrzycki and Robert Westman, to his work.

Obviously, this is not a scholarly book, but it makes for entertaining and edifying reading, showing how the historian's profession can be as captivating as any detective's. Gingerich writes with great wit and a sensitive feeling for the attention of his audience. The book includes at the end a brief summary of the census and a short reading list for any one wanting to know more about the scholarly debates surrounding Copernicus and the readers...


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pp. 994-995
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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