Newton: Ackroyd's Brief Lives [NOOK Book]


When Newton was not yet twenty-five years old, he formulated calculus, hit upon the idea of gravity, and discovered that white light was made up of all the colors of the spectrum. By 1678, Newton designed a telescope to study the movement of the planets and published Principia, a milestone in the history of science, which set forth his famous laws of motion and universal gravitation. Newton’s long-time research on calculus, finally made public in 1704, triggered a heated controversy as European scientists accused...
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Newton: Ackroyd's Brief Lives

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When Newton was not yet twenty-five years old, he formulated calculus, hit upon the idea of gravity, and discovered that white light was made up of all the colors of the spectrum. By 1678, Newton designed a telescope to study the movement of the planets and published Principia, a milestone in the history of science, which set forth his famous laws of motion and universal gravitation. Newton’s long-time research on calculus, finally made public in 1704, triggered a heated controversy as European scientists accused him of plagiarizing the work of the German scientist Gottfried Leibniz.

In this third volume in the acclaimed Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd provides an engaging portrait of Isaac Newton, illuminating what we think we know about him and describing his seminal contributions to science and mathematics.

A man of wide and eclectic interests, Newton blurred the borders between natural philosophy and speculation: he was as passionate about astrology as astronomy and dabbled in alchemy, while his religious faith was never undermined by his determination to interpret a modern universe as a mathematical universe.

By brining vividly to life a somewhat puritanical man whose desire to experiment and explore bordered on the obsessive, Peter Ackroyd demonstrates the unique brilliance of Newton’s perceptions, which changed our understanding of the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

While the prolific Ackroyd (London, among many others), in this addition to his Brief Lives series, doesn't provide new insights into one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, he does present a well-written distillation of the life and accomplishments of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton's scientific achievements are legend, from the creation of calculus to the formulation of the theory of gravity. Ackroyd asserts that the devout Newton, acting largely alone, institutionalized modern scientific method by demanding data and experimentation rather than supernatural explanations based in belief. Even though Newton studied alchemy, it was always within the construct of science, says Ackroyd. The biographer presents the other side of Newton as well: his quirky personality, the insecurity that made it difficult for him to tolerate any criticism and kept him from publishing many of his ideas for extended periods. And he shows how Newton, a loner as a young man, left the isolation of Cambridge University for London and the public sphere as master of the mint and president of the prestigious Royal Society. The vindictive Newton held extended grudges for slights, real or imagined, and Ackroyd summarizes the decades-long disputes with Robert Hooke and Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed. In short, Ackroyd does a commendable job in this introduction to a very complex genius. Illus. (Apr. 15)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In describing the intellectual vigor that Isaac Newton applied to developing mathematical models of the physical world, to alchemy, to spiritual questions, and to his work with the Royal Mint, as well as his fierce defense of his status as a leading scholar, novelist and accomplished biographer Ackroyd draws a finely detailed miniature of the man renowned for his genius and for his ambition. In this third book of his "Brief Lives" series (after Chaucerand Turner), the author provides his portrait with a richly drawn background of the scientific culture of 17th-century Britain that includes the Royal Society of London and Cambridge University. Those looking for fuller treatments of Newton may be directed to Gale E. Christianson's In the Presence of the Creator, James Gleick's popular Isaac Newton, which includes illustrated discussions of some of Newton's mathematics (Ackroyd steers clear of the math), and The Cambridge Companion to Newton(edited by I. Bernard Cohen and George E. Smith), an accessible collection of essays by Newton scholars. Ackroyd's book is recommended for public libraries and undergraduate collections.
—Sara Rutter

Kirkus Reviews
Compact biography of the great English scientist, the third in Ackroyd's Brief Lives series (Chaucer, 2005; J.M.W. Turner, 2006). Born on Christmas day 1642, Isaac Newton was the posthumous child of an illiterate yeoman farmer. His mother remarried and left him to be raised by his grandmother. At a local school, he distinguished himself by his inventiveness at creating toys and gadgets; it quickly became apparent he had no aptitude for farming. At his teacher's urging, he was sent to Cambridge, where he so excelled in math that he was appointed a professor at the age of 26. His full genius bloomed during an involuntary vacation forced by the Great Plague of 1665. He experimented with prisms to uncover the nature of light; he worked up the essentials of calculus; and he laid the foundations for a theory of gravitation. Upon his return to the academic world, he began to publish some of what he had learned. Ackroyd points out that Newton was not in any haste to make his mark; indeed, a certain secretiveness characterized his work for much of his life. He delved into alchemical and theological speculations, which he was probably just as wise not to commit to publication. (In fact, had his religious convictions become known, he would undoubtedly have had to resign his academic post.) He also indulged in a series of professional feuds, with Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibnitz in particular, that are perhaps the most regrettable blemish on his reputation. Ackroyd gives enough of the historical context to make Newton's salient character traits and greatest accomplishments clear to the modern reader. A slim but solid introduction, akin to James Gleick's Isaac Newton (2003).
From the Publisher
Newton is both impeccably researched and a wonderful read. An afternoon in the backyard hammock with ‘the grand autocrat of science.’”
Los Angeles Times

“[Ackroyd] may well be the most prolific English author of his generation. And, which I find encouraging, he can write movingly and revealingly about Isaac Newton while being no more of a scientist or mathematician than I am.”
–Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair

“Astute and beautifully written…. Not surprisingly, the prolific Mr. Ackroyd, who is the author of 12 novels as well as biographies of Dickens, Thomas More, and Shakespeare–not to mention at least four histories of London–excels at re-creating the look and feel, at once grubby and exalted, of Newton's milieu. And Newton the man comes through splendidly in all the sheer arrogance of his driven genius.”
The New York Sun

“The brief life of Newton meets a widespread need…. Ackroyd’s writing is a great pleasure to read.”
The New Criterion

“A terrific piece of work… this is a wonderfully writerly book, never less than elegant in construction and execution.”
“Written in splendidly elastic prose, each sentence a springboard for the next, it provides a concise, fair and highly readable biography of a singular genius'.”
The Times

“Ackroyd's essay on [Newton] is understated and elegantly constructed.”
The Guardian

“Beautifully written and engaging.”
BBC History

The Barnes & Noble Review
Sir Isaac Newton is one of the few scientists, I think, who has an afterlife in the public imagination. Even schoolchildren have a mental image of him sitting under an apple tree about to be bonked. The secretive Newton will never have a warm haze around him like that of playful, wispy-haired Einstein sticking out his tongue, but just as people can trot out Einstein's E=mc2, so they pull out Newton's laws -- e.g., "to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction."

But few of us know much else about him, and that's a shame. Details of his life will never overshadow his work -- and that's a good thing -- but they do enlarge our sense of how his work came to be, where his genius resides, and what remains inexplicable about him. Our ignorance isn't the fault of willing biographers. There are several good biographies of Newton in print, especially Richard S. Westfall's thorough one that comes in at almost 1,000 pages. Peter Ackroyd has written thousands of pages of biography alone -- let's forget about the novels and histories and children's books for the moment -- but he has also started a series of Brief Lives through which he can deploy his expository skill, quick eye, and brisk commentary to terrific effect. His biography of Newton weighs in at just a few ounces, but this baby doesn't feel premature or undernourished.

Newton, by contrast, was a sickly infant; indeed, like David Copperfield, he was "a posthumous child," born after his father's death. But due also to his birth on Christmas Day, Newton's beginnings were a mixture of the unprepossessing and the auspicious. His birth into an undistinguished country family in 1642 coincided with the beginning of the English Civil War. Thus his life and career span the political turmoil from Charles I's beheading, through Cromwell's Protectorate, through Charles II's return, James II's abortive reign, William, Mary, Anne, and the German George I, who died in 1727, the same year as Newton. Young Isaac survived his somewhat unhappy family life and education at a local grammar school to head off to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he did all of his most important work in mathematics and physics.

And yet Newton's great teachers were not in the lecture halls: they were Euclid, Descartes, and Kepler, all of whom he read and absorbed on his own. One of his greatest talents -- perhaps the only one he shares with Charles Darwin -- was his ability to teach himself what he needed to know, from a curriculum that didn't exist, to prepare for a job for which there was no description. Parallel to this autodidactic talent was Newton's social self-sufficiency. This manifested itself early, in his isolation from other children while he busied himself in making "knick-knacks and models of wood in many kinds." He made a mechanical cart (powered by himself at a windlass), a clock (powered by water), a mill (powered by mouse), and a super-accurate sundial; presumably based on his observations, he also made an almanac.

These details of the scientist's early life seem to have predicted the adult Newton's ability to build his own apparatus for experiments. His parabolic lensed telescope, for example, required a considerable amount of technical skill to conceive and put together -- not only did he build it from scratch, he made the tools to build it, too. But one of his most famous experiments -- Newton's Bucket -- is simple enough that you can rig it up in your backyard. These facts are important: natural philosophers tended to be stronger on abstract philosophizing, leaving more practical studies to barber-surgeons and alchemists along the lines of Victor Frankenstein. The fact is that Newton was interested in confirming his speculations by experiment (and conversely in observing natural phenomena and then speculating about their causes), was able to build his own equipment, and was willing for people to know about it. Newton's questions to himself in his notebooks -- for example, "To try whether the weight of a body may be altered by heate or cold" -- makes it pretty easy to claim him as an early scientist, a word that in its modern meaning wasn't even coined until 1833.

And yet. At the same time that Newton proclaimed his intellectual allegiances -- "Good friends are Aristotle and Plato, but a greater friend is truth" -- he also learned Hebrew the better to understand Old Testament prophecies. He devised an elegant analysis of the constituent parts of light at the same time that he practiced alchemy -- in fact, he arguably took alchemy more seriously. Ackroyd writes, "He did not take [his alchemical work] up, exhaust it, and put it down -- as he did with optics and mathematics. It was a continuing preoccupation, engaging his attention for over thirty years."

I've set these terms up as value-laden opposites, which is how we tend to think of them. Certainly Martin Gardner, a far, far, better reader in this field than I am, sincerely thinks so: "What else might he have discovered had he not squandered his energy and talents on alchemy and Biblical exegesis!" he laments in the April 2008 issue of The New Criterion. After Ackroyd's compressed exegesis of Newton's life, though, I feel even more strongly that for Newton all his studies were part of a whole. He had a sense of an underlying unity of all things everywhere -- a sense both mathematical and mystical. Without it, he might never, say, have made the mental extension from a particular apple drawn to earth to a universal force that binds all bodies together.

There's a lot of material in Ackroyd's brisk traversal of Newton's long life -- his famous professional feuds, for instance, with Leibniz and others, and his zealous tenure running England's Mint. But the material amuses and instructs -- and provides food for thought for what we owe Newton, and a mind unafraid to embrace contradiction. --Alexandra Mullen

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385525572
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/15/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 852,793
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

PETER ACKROYD is the biographer of William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Dickens, Blake, and Thomas Moore, and the author of the bestselling London: The Biography. The subject of his previous Brief Life was J.M.W. Turner. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award (jointly), and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is the author of Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, and his novels include The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (winner of the Somerset Maughn Award), Hawksmoor (Guardian Fiction Prize), Chatterton (short-listed for the Booker Prize), and most recently The Fall of Troy. He lives in London.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

A Blessed Boy

Isaac Newton, the man who more than any other has shaped modern perceptions of the world, was born at 2 a.m. on the morning of Christmas Day, 1642, outside an obscure village in Lincolnshire from a family of undistinguished yeoman stock. He was a premature and sickly infant. Two women from the household were sent to collect certain items for the child but "they sate down on a stile by the way & said there was no occasion for making haste for they were sure the child would be dead before they could get back." At a later date Newton informed a relative that "he had been told that when he was born he was so little they could put him into a quart pot & so weakly that he was forced to have a bolster all round his neck to keep it on his shoulders."

Yet the omens were good. A birth on Christmas Day, with its obvious connection to the Saviour, was considered to be blessed. Such a birthday was deemed to be the harbinger of great success in the world. Isaac Newton was an only child. His father had died four months before the son was born, and so the omens were good in another sense: a posthumous child was commonly believed to be the recipient of good fortune. In his adult life Newton considered himself to be unique among men, and the circumstances of his arrival in the world must have encouraged that notion. His survival was considered by him to be a miracle, a harbinger of the other miracles he would perform.

He was born in a small house in the manor of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth. An eighteenth-century drawing shows it to be a solid if undistinguished two-storey house of the English type. The drawing also contains a cow, a horse, and a peasant with his cart, depicting in miniature the rural world in which Newton grew up. The house itself was constructed from the grey limestone of the vicinity and included a kitchen, hall, parlour and upstairs bedrooms. The modern visitor will note that the rooms have low ceilings and stone floors, adding to the generally sober if not exactly sombre atmosphere of the dwelling. Newton was born in the bedroom immediately to the left of the staircase.

The house stands on the side of a small valley made by the River Witham, facing west, and looks over the garden that has become celebrated in world history as the site of Newton's falling apple. The tree itself was long ago felled by the wind. The "manor" consisted of some hundred acres (31.5 hectares) of woods and fields, a patrimony that Newton would one day inherit. William Stukeley, the eighteenth-century topographer, antiquarian and Newtonian enthusiast who collected all the material on his hero that he could find, described the landscape as one of "very delightful" valleys and "plentiful" woods. He added that the "springs and rivulets of the purest water abound" and that the air of the neighbourhood "is exceedingly good." This was the area that produced "the greatest genius of the human race."

The ancestry of his immediate family gave no inkling of this greatness. Newton could trace his predecessors only as far back as John Newton, who had lived a century before in the village of Westby just a few miles from Woolsthorpe. The Newtons were husbandmen of Lincolnshire stock who by degrees rose painfully slowly in the social hierarchy of the county and had by Newton's time reached the eminence of yeomen. When on occasions we observe the taciturnity and even surliness of Newton, we may recognise the habits of Lincolnshire farming stock.

His own father, also named Isaac Newton, has no great claim to the attention of posterity. He was a yeoman farmer who looked after the estate and had a certain proprietorial care for the tenants who lived in the small cottages within his domain. He left some five hundred pounds in his will, proving that he had maintained the relative affluence of the family. All the evidence suggests, however, that he could not write his name, like the father of William Shakespeare, thus adding to the myth of genius born in the most unpromising circumstances. Newton's uncle and cousin were also both illiterate. It would have been perfectly possible that, in marginally different circumstances, Isaac Newton himself would never have learned how to read or write.

The family of his mother, Hannah Ayscough, was more genteel in its aspirations. It is the usual familial chemistry of male children who go on to distinguish themselves. Hannah's brother was a clergyman who had studied at Cambridge University. He could not have been very successful in his vocation, however, since he was immured in a rectory only two miles away from Woolsthorpe itself. The Ayscoughs, originally from Rutland, were in fact in a state of sliding gentility. The marriage of Isaac and Hannah reflects their meeting with rural stock on its way up. Isaac Newton was the result.

He was baptized on the first day of the new year, 1643, in the family church at nearby Colsterworth. The widowed mother naturally gave the infant her spouse's name of Isaac. The name itself comes from the Hebrew for "one who laughs," but the young child could have felt little cause for rejoicing. Just three years after his birth, his mother decided to marry again and separate herself from the infant child. She was betrothed to a neighbouring rector, Barnabas Smith, more than thirty years her senior. The Reverend Smith had no very Christian notion of his stepson, however, and as part of the marriage agreement it was stipulated that the young Newton would remain at Woolsthorpe under the care of his maternal grandmother. Hannah would depart to Smith's rectory in North Witham, some mile and a half away. A relative recalled later that Smith gave Newton "a parcel of Land, being one of the terms insisted on by the widow if she married him." Smith also agreed to have the manor house at Woolsthorpe repaired and renovated. It seems to have been altogether a businesslike arrangement, and this was not an age in which the susceptibilities of young children were much considered.

So for the next eight years Newton was reared by his grandmother, Margery Ayscough. There is no mention of his paternal grandfather in this context, so it must be assumed that he played no part in the new domestic arrangements. It was an affluent and respectable household, but his mother's absence necessarily had a profound effect upon the young child. It would have been natural for him to have experienced a sense of abandonment, perhaps even of unworthiness. In adult life he manifested great insecurity and an inordinate fear of emotional contact with other human beings; he was also suspicious and secretive, with a great desire for order and security in all aspects of his life. He also had the capacity for great anger and aggression. These are perhaps the marks of one who had once been deeply hurt.

Whatever the truth of his psychology, there can be no doubt that he was a lonely child. He was brought up in a farmhouse some distance from any village, and he would have been prohibited by his grandmother from playing with any of the "common" children of the cottagers. He was, in other words, thrown back upon his own resources. In later life he was well known for his isolation as well as for his self-sufficiency, characteristics that he acquired at an early stage. It is often said that brilliant mathematicians tend to have solitary childhoods, in which they can explore the visionary world of numbers.

There are only two recollections of this otherwise obscure period in Newton's life. He recalled that his grandmother had claimed the family's affinity with a baronet, perhaps the context for Newton's subsequent aspiration towards gentlemanly status. And in a notebook compiled at a later date he confessed to the sin of "threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them." The date of this terrible threat is not known but, to gain its full effect, it must have occurred when Barnabas Smith still lived. Such was the ferocious anger of the young boy abandoned and betrayed. It is significant, too, that he did not forget his anger.

And then, quite unexpectedly, his mother returned. Barnabas Smith died after eight years of marriage, and the twice widowed Hannah came back to the family home with three small children. The advent of a half-brother and two half-sisters may not have been greeted by Newton with overwhelming joy. Barnabas Smith left nothing to Newton in his will, but the boy did receive the pastor's library of two hundred books and a large "commonplace book" in which Newton was to write down many of his early experiments and speculations. He called it his "waste book."

He enjoyed his mother's unfamiliar company for only two years, however, since in 1655 at the age of twelve he was despatched to the grammar school in the neighbouring town of Grantham. It was only seven miles away but the distance, in the intellectual history of Isaac Newton, was much greater. He was lodged with a local apothecary, Mr. Clarke, whose house and shop were on the high street of the town, beside the George Inn. It was a busier, and noisier, milieu than any he had before encountered. The apothecary was the brother of the usher at the grammar school, so he may have "taken in" schoolboy lodgers as part of his income. Clarke himself may have been responsible for Newton's early interest in chemical experiment. In his notebook the young Newton began to transcribe recipes and cures acquired from the books that Clarke kept around him. Newton slept in a garret room, probably with one of Clarke's own children, and he carved his name on the walls as well as leaving drawings of birds and ships, circles and triangles.

Even the doodles of Newton have significance. At some point he drew portraits of John Donne and Charles I. His reasons for memorialising the poet are not easy to guess, but it might seem that he had some sympathy with the executed king. It should not be forgotten that the years of his childhood were the years of the Civil War and the Protectorate, but it would be foolish to speculate about the schoolboy's political sympathies. He was a royalist by necessity at the time of the revived monarchy, but there was also a strong spirit of dissent (even Puritanism) in his religious sensibility.

It is possible that he had learned the rudiments of reading and spelling at one of the "dame" schools in the local villages of Skillington and Stoke Rochford, but the Free Grammar School of Edward VI in Grantham offered him his introduction to the world of classical letters. In particular he was taught how to read and write in the Latin language, an indispensable prelude to any scholastic achievement and a necessary accomplishment for any man of learning. Without Latin, the adult Newton would not have been able to reach a European audience. He also acquired a working knowledge of Greek, and was systematically instructed in the Scriptures. Since the books he acquired from Barnabas Smith were largely theological in intent, it is possible that his biblical knowledge was already extensive. Common sense would suggest that he devoured whatever volumes were to hand. At school he was trained in handwriting, employing the correct "secretary" hand, and may even have been given rudimentary lessons in mathematics.

Yet he was not necessarily precocious in the standard curriculum of the school. In his first year he was marked seventy-eighth out of a total of eighty pupils, and a later biographer has remarked that he "continued very negligent" in his lessons. Like many children of incipient genius, however, he may have considered those lessons to be unnecessary. Those who are busy in one realm of the mind and imagination may ignore all others as unimportant. Yet he did stand out from his childhood contemporaries in another sense. He was endlessly inventive. There are many anecdotes concerning Newton's youth and childhood; some of them are apocryphal, some are hagiographical in intent, and others are plainly incredible. It is important only to note that they accrued around Newton at a relatively early date; he was celebrated by his contemporaries, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries he was considered a magus almost unrivalled. So the stories and legends grew.

An historian of Grantham, recounting the history of the town's most famous inhabitant, recorded young Newton's "strange inventions, and extraordinary inclination for mechanics." Instead of playing with the other boys he preferred to construct "knick-knacks and models of wood in many kinds," for which purpose "he had got little saws, hatchets, hammers, and a whole shop of tools." So he spent his time outside his lessons "knocking and hammering in his lodging room." It is a clear foretaste of his dexterity and ingenuity as a mechanic and technician in his own laboratory.

As a child he made a wooden clock, and a wooden mill based upon his observations of a new mill being built in Grantham itself. Within the wheel of the mill he placed a mouse, which made it revolve. The clock itself was powered by water, and was considered so reliable that "the family upon occasion would go to see what was the hour by it." From the beginning he was preoccupied with time and mechanism. This was nowhere more evident than in his creation of a sundial by calculating the sun's progress and by fixing pegs to the walls and roof of the apothecary's house. It was so exact that "any body knew what o'clock it was by Isaac's dial, as they ordinarily called it." He devised his own almanac, too, with its report of equinoxes and solstices. In much later life it was observed that he looked at shadows in order to tell the time of the day. As a child, too, he had discovered the connection between the measurement of time and the measurement of space.

It is said by the same local historian that his delight in mechanical ingenuity sometimes interfered with his more orthodox studies, and that duller boys were placed above him in the form. Nevertheless his capacity for learning was such that he could "outstrip them when he pleased." He did not altogether neglect boyish sports, however, and it is reported that he designed paper kites according to the correct mathematical proportions; he also created candle-lit paper lanterns which, when tied to the tails of the kites, impressed and frightened the local people as "comets." He had learned the power of enchantment as well as entertainment.

He also evinced a strongly practical and empirical streak, whereby his calculations and observations were turned into machines for use. William Stukeley observed of these childhood inventions that Newton manifested a "sagacious discernment of causes and effects" as well as an "invincible constancy and perseverance in finding out his solutions and demonstrations." It is perhaps too easy to find the child in the man, but there can be no doubt that from his school years he was a skilled artisan as well as calculator. A note by John Conduitt, a later relative by marriage, informs us that he had "carpenter's hands."

On the window ledge of the schoolroom in Grantham he left one memorial of his education. He carved, with a penknife, the words "I. Newton." At a later date he also recorded a few random incidents of his schooldays. In his obsessive list of sins compiled at the age of nineteen he recalls "putting a pin in John Keys hat on Thy day to prick him," "Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storey" and "denying that I did so" as well as "peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter." It is not clear what is most remarkable--his memory of such minor incidents or his belief that he had committed sin as a result of them. We can never overestimate the sensitivity of his conscience or his typically seventeenth-century sense of sinfulness.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2013

    An Eloquent Introduction to One of the Greatest Minds in History

    My only complaint is that it is not a longer volume.

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