This got the gears turning: Years ago, Gingerich had read Arthur Koestler’s influential history of early astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, which asserts that De revolutionibus was “the book nobody read”. At first glance, this might ring true: It was published literally as Copernicus lay dying, and beyond the opening chapters, the book is heavily technical. Two nights prior to Gingerich’s discovery, he had had a talk with a colleague about how few readers they thought De revolutionibus might have had. (Gingerich’s book allows readers the pleasure of being a fly on the wall for this and many other stupendously fascinating interlocutions.)
And yet here was a De revolutionibus with its technical sections thoroughly studied. “If it was read so rarely, why was the very next copy I chanced upon so full of evidence of a most perceptive reader, who had marked innumerable errors and who had worked his way through to the very end, even past the obscure material on planetary latitudes that brought up the rear of the four-hundred-page volume?”
What follows is a delightful telling of Gingerich’s globe-spanning (mis)adventures in compiling a census of the first-and-second editions of De revolutionibus. He shares the sense of discovery vividly as he investigates the annotations and tracks down the provenances. The reader learns fascinating things about rare books, stolen books, book printing, typography, book auctions, sophistication scams, and a bit of history of astronomy for good measure. You even come to understand the librarian’s aphorism, “Bigger books linger longer.” It helps that Gingerich’s storytelling skills rival his considerable linguistic and historic expertise.
I can only begin to say how much of a treasure this book is. Beyond it being a strange thrill just to read a good book-about-a-book, it’s not every day that this kind of specialized knowledge is put into literary exercise. If you want to become Owen Gingerich, you have a long road ahead of you that involves learning Latin and obtaining a PhD in astrophysics, and that’s just to start. But because of this book, you don’t have to become Owen Gingerich to share in the adventure.
Libraries: Halifax, PEI, Novanet
See also: Chasing Copernicus: 'The Book Nobody Read' - National Public Radio