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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Book Nobody Read

Owen Gingerich

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To purchase The Book Nobody Read

Title: The Book Nobody Read
Author: Owen Gingerich
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 271 pages
Availability: The Book Nobody Read - US
The Book Nobody Read - UK
The Book Nobody Read - Canada
  • US subtitle: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
  • UK subtitle: In Pursuit of the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus
  • With numerous illustrations
  • With an Appendix listing the locations of the known copies of the first two editions of De revolutionibus

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating, unusual endeavour, quite well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A- 27/2/2004 Wook Kim
Literary Review . 8/2004 John Dugdale
New Statesman . 16/8/2004 Jan Morris
The NY Times Book Rev. A 18/7/2004 John Noble Wilford
Science . 30/4/2004 Peter Barker
TLS . 18/2/2005 Seamus Sweeney
Wall St. Journal . 5/3/2004 Stuart Ferguson

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result is an adventure book not of the white-knuckle variety, but with a genteel, satisfying tone all its own." - Wook Kim, Entertainment Weekly

  • "This uniquely fascinating work is not a restful read. Its subject is enthralling; its author sounds delightful. However, it dashes about with such unrelenting enthusiasm, and throws in such a heady variety of anecdote and scholarship, that after 300 pages even the most appreciative reader may feel limp." - Jan Morris, New Statesman

  • "His enthusiasm for what might be judged a rather fine point of history is infectious. His book deserves to be read not only by historians and bibliophiles, but by anyone with a taste for arcane detective adventures and a curiosity about the motivations of scholarly perseverance." - John Noble Wilford, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Gingerich is interesting on the friends and enemies of the survival of books. (...) The general reader may be misled into believing this to be a sort of biography of Copernicus, or a history of astronomy. It isn't -- it is the biography of a book, and an example of the admirable enthusiasm of the bibliophile." - Seamus Sweeney, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of this book is taken from a statement made by Arthuir Koestler: in his 1959 book, The Sleepwalkers, he called Nicholas Copernicus' 1543 tome, De revolutionibus, "the book that nobody read". Now, in a bibliographical tour de force, Owen Gingrich proves him wrong. This book is a companion volume of sorts to his 2002 work, An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus, describing how he sought out all extant copies of the first two editions of Copernicus' classic work -- and in examining and cataloguing them was able to determine whose hands they had gone through. Of greatest interest are the annotations in the copies themselves, often made by the illustrious owners -- and proving definitively that at least some significant scientists, philosophers, and others not only read the work but read it closely. It seems an unlikely subject for a book, but in fact it is a neat exercise in intellectual history.
       Gingerich begins with a bit of incidental drama, describing his testimony at a trial of a book-thief who was unwise enough to steal a copy of De revolutionibus; Gingerich is convincingly able to identify it. (As it turns out, his detailed census proves to be a very valuable resource in identifying and/or recovering lost and stolen copies of the first editions of the book (something that happens more often than one might have expected).)
       Gingerich's book is an interesting tour of several different subjects. For one, it is a good introduction to the world of antiquarian book collecting, selling, and safe-keeping. Gingerich hunts down any and all first or second edition of De revolutionibus he hears about. Most are in libraries (everywhere from the Vatican to China), and there are some fascinating behind the scenes glimpses of this rarefied world as he leads readers through these august (and sometimes less so) institutions. Among the fascinating titbits is the story of libraries looking to get better copies and deaccessioning superfluous ones -- which, as he points out, has to be done carefully: that edition with the scribbled marginal notes may be of far more interest (and worth) than a clean edition .....
       Fascinating, also, is his reminder that book-making in the 16th century was a considerably different matter than it is now. He provides a good introduction to the making and history of the first two editions De revolutionibus, and how one can identify the different copies. Sold as loose packets of sheets, the books were bound by the buyers, making for a large variety of finished books.
       The list of owners of the first and second edition of Copernicus' book is an impressive one, and Gingerich does a good job of explaining the relationship of them (or their work) to Copernicus, a fascinating piecing together of an intellectual-history puzzle. Of particular use for this are the annotations many owners left in the books, and Gingerich's detective work (with handwriting comparisons and all) is nicely related, and leads to some interesting discoveries and conclusions.
       Throughout, Gingerich also discusses (in considerable detail) the implications and significance of Copernicus' book and its role in leading to the widespread acceptance of the heliocentric model (i.e. acceptance of the fact that the earth moves around the sun (etc.), not vice versa). The books he examines provide additional details, and Gingerich also has some fun with the resulting academic debates (including with the grand-master of the subject, Edward Rosen).

       For anyone interested in the Copernican revolution, and for dedicated bibliophiles, The Book Nobody Read is a very entertaining must-read, a fascinating story breezily told and also providing a good deal of information. Note, however, that readers with little interest in Copernicus' book, or who don't get giddy at the thought of rummaging in a library or old bookstore for hours at a time (much less care to read about others doing so) might not be quite so enthusiastic.

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The Book Nobody Read: Reviews: Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus: Owen Gingerich: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Owen Gingerich teaches at Harvard University.

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© 2004-2022 the complete review

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