June 2005

Sarah Statz


The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus by Owen Gingerich

Much like the annotated first and second editions of the revolutionary sixteenth-century text he spent a large part of his lifetime tracking down, the most fascinating details of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus are those which exist not to further his story, but to describe the context of his simultaneously global yet insular academic world.

At first glance, a historical detective story about tracking down rare editions of a centuries-old scientific text with the sole purpose of compiling their bibliographic details and studying what previous owners scribbled in their margins might sound less than compelling. However, when the book in question is Nicolaus Copernicus’s hugely influential De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), and the marginalia was scribbled by many of his contemporaries and fellow giants in early astronomical science, the story takes on new meaning.

Most readers familiar with Copernicus and his treatise, first published in 1543, know it as the book that introduced his theory that the Sun was fixed in the middle of the universe, and that the Earth traveled around it; or as the book and theory which were believed and substantiated by Galileo Galilei’s telescopic evidence, landing him in hot water with the Catholic church hierarchy. Gingerich, a longtime professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University, briefly tells the story of that infamous clash, but is more interested in locating the truth behind Arthur Koestler’s claim that Copernicus’s complicated work was, in truth, “the book nobody read” (a claim advanced in Koestler’s bestselling history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, published in 1959).

To refute that claim, Gingerich undertook the production of a census of as many first and second (printed in 1566) editions of the text as he could personally examine, taking nearly three decades and frequent global trips to do so. The crux of his research was the study of the annotations made in the margins of the books by their famous owners, including Copernicus’s disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus, mathematical astronomer Erasmus Reinhold, and Galileo Galilei, as well as many other influential scientists. In locating their copies and finding often extensive marginalia posing responses to the Copernican system, as well as evidence that they used De revolutionibus (pronounced “Day-revoluty-OWN-ibus”) as a starting point for further groundbreaking theories, Gingerich proposes that the book was not only read, but “launched a revolution even more profound than the Reformation.”

Although Gingerich does a serviceable job of detailing some of the more complex and mathematical aspects of the famous treatise, readers looking for a true history of science or a more in-depth explanation of the Copernican system will have to look elsewhere, a caveat that has been offered by many previous reviewers. Those readers more drawn to the documentation of Gingerich’s specialized bibliomania and the intersections of scholarship and rare book theft will be enthralled from the first page of his rather dense text to the last.

His overweening pride of purpose can be a bit much at times, but readers will also enjoy the author’s candid explanations of combining his own library visits and research with academic conference attendance (one of his colleagues opines that the most interesting things at conferences “happen on the excursion buses”). Of particular interest is his 1973 excursion to Cairo, funded by American grain surpluses; rather than receiving cash for agricultural products sent to needy countries such as Egypt, the United States accepted payment in the form of opportunities in, and free travel for, scholars and other government agency employees in those countries. Not bad work if you can get it.

The Book Nobody Read was first published in hardcover in 2004, and was issued in paperback in February 2005. Blurbs from both popular science writer Dava Sobel and bibliomania documenter extraordinaire Nicholas Basbanes on its cover will also help to ensure that Gingerich’s own surprisingly engaging book is not one that will be in any real danger of going unread.

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus by Owen Gingerich
ISBN: 0143034766
320 pages