Friday, November 12, 2010

The Book Nobody Read

Will this be "the blog nobody read?"   Did this pop into my mind because it may well be the case that no one will ever read this or is this thought simply a pointer to a cherished book in my library?  I believe the latter. 

In The Book Nobody Read, Owen Gingerich, senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and research professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University, details his investigation of Arthur Koestler's claim in The Sleepwalkers, that no one read Copernicus's landmark book, De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) when published in 1543. 

Today, we may (or may not) recall from school, that Nicolaus Copernicus is revered as the man who once and for all proved that the earth revolves around the sun.  This, the heliocentric model, was at odds with earlier and "Vatican approved" theories arguing that the earth is stable and the sun and the heavens revolve around the earth. 

While the initial publication of De revolutionibus did not generate much "official" attention, in 1616 during the Vatican's investigation into the heresy of Galileo, the book was censored and the original banned.  Copernicus remained on the List of Prohibited Books until 1835 even though his heliocentric theory was long since, universally accepted.   This revolution in understanding was so important in the history of science and ideas, that many a thinker has claimed to ignite their own Copernican revolution.  Very few since, have earned such acclaim.  On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is a book that changed the world.
I'll never own and probably will never be able to even browse a copy of the first or second edition of De Revolutionibus, but I will always enjoy Gingerich's story.  The Book Nobody Read is a chronicle and popularization of Gingerich's search, over 30 years, and study of the 600 existing copies of the first and second edition of Copernicus.  His study resulted in the publication of An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, Brill, Leiden, 2002,  402 pages.  It may be safe to say that very few if any actually read that book! For anyone who loves early printed books the opportunity to visit, handle and study all the surviving copies is as unlikely a life-goal as there could be.  Being resourced and able to visit/study every existing copy of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, would be my quest. 

The Book Nobody Read details the story of a "book census."  With easy access to WorldCat it is possible to discover how many copies of an early printed book (or any book) exist in cataloged book collections.  Private holdings are often hidden, but auction records and careful searches of the rare book trade can be studied to determine how many copies of a given work exist outside of cataloged library holdings.  A statistical book census is valuable for collectors and scholars.  Visiting and reviewing all known copies, more of a dream, or a life pursuit for well-funded scholar.

My interest in Copernicus and the publication of De revolutionibus found some satisfaction in owning and reading The Book Nobody Read.  It is a treasure in my private library.  For a collector of all things Copernicus, The Book Nobody Read is a resource for further collecting.  At the least, a collector would own the actual Ginergrich census and a first edition first printing of Koestler's The Sleepwalkers.  And to the collector willing to spend serious money, congratulations and please invite me to your library so that I could actually view a copy of De revolutionibus, a book that was in fact, read and a book that changed the world.

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