The New York Times
The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicusby Owen Gingerich
Gingrich (astronomer emeritus, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; and astronomy and the history of science, Harvard U.) examines how an intensely technical 16th-century treatise launched a revolution more profound than the Reformation, and how copies have evolved into million-dollar cultural icons. He also recounts his personal experience producing An Annotated Census of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus (2002). Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
The New York Times
- Penguin Group (USA)
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- 5.06(w) x 7.68(h) x 0.62(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
THE BOOK NOBODY READChasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
By OWEN GINGERICH
Walker & CompanyISBN: 0-8027-1415-3
Chapter OneA DAY IN COURT
* * *
"DO YOU AFFIRM to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
I had never been at a jury trial before, much less in a witness box. My conservative religious upbringing had made me wary of such occasions, and especially the swearing of oaths. The judge, in agreement with the FBI, had not merely acquiesced to my own idiosyncracy; on that August day in 1984 all the witnesses simply affirmed their intention to tell the truth. The defendant, once a seminary student, stood accused of carrying across a state line stolen property worth more than $5,000-specifically, a copy of Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus.
Stolen book cases are quite rare in court. Most are settled by plea bargaining, if not before a trial begins, then immediately after the prosecution has demonstrated its seriousness by impaneling a jury. But in this case the defendant held a security clearance for his job, and to accept a plea bargain would have immediately stripped him of that essential cachet.
I had watched the process of jury selection in the Washington, D.C., federal district court with curiosity and increasing amazement. Challenges abounded. A distinguished-looking retired black police officer was summarily dismissed despite his long service on a grand jury. A grade-school librarian was challenged. Any possible appreciators of books were eliminated. It was all too clear that the defense was hoping that a jury with the least possible education would be the most sympathetic.
What happened next threw me into near panic. The defense lawyers moved that the witnesses be sequestered. I knew the word only from the 1 newspapers: When a jury is sequestered, the jurors are locked up in hotel rooms whenever they are out of the courtroom. I did not look forward to spending the duration of the trial incarcerated in a Washington hotel. I was relieved, but also annoyed, to discover that in this case the term merely meant that the witnesses could not hear each other testify. But in the end the strategy backfired, because we independently reinforced each other's testimonies and the jury knew we hadn't been allowed to coordinate our replies to the questions.
After the opening statements, which I was not allowed to hear but which I found out about afterward, I was brought in as the first expert witness. The government attorney, Eric Marcy, began by asking me, "Who was Copernicus, and why was he important?"
I explained that Nicolaus Copernicus was a great astronomer who is sometimes considered the father of modern science. He was born in Poland in 1473, went to school in Cracow at the same time Columbus was setting sail to the New World, but did his important astronomical work in the 1500s. His great book, De revolutionibus, argued against the common belief that the Earth was solidly fixed in the middle of the universe. Instead, he proposed that the Sun was immovable in the middle, and that the Earth went around it, along with the other planets. In other words, he proposed the arrangement of the solar system much as we know it today. This is why his book, first published in the year he died, 1543, is such a landmark and is eagerly sought by collectors.
I was teeming with a lot of news about Copernicus, and I could have kept the jury there the rest of the morning, but before I could go farther Marcy thrust Exhibit A-a copy of De revolutionibus itself-into my hands. Had I ever seen this copy before?
I informed the jury that for more than a decade I had been engaged in a study of Copernicus' book, and that I had personally examined several hundred copies, looking for notes written in the margins by early owners. I quickly pointed out that the pages were originally sold as loose sheets, and that each owner had the book bound to his own tastes. Unlike modern books, which are as similar as peas in a pod, sixteenth-century books were each individually bound and distinctive. A popular binding, especially in Italy and France, was limp vellum, similar to the "sheepskins" that go into diplomas. In Germany pigskin was often used over oak boards, generally with individual patterns rolled onto the material under considerable pressure. In England, and on the Continent as well, calf bindings over heavy cardboard were popular, usually with some pattern or another of scored rectangles. I carefully examined the book as if I hadn't seen it in years (though the FBI had refreshed my memory by showing it to me a few hours earlier), and then produced a binder of typescript sheets that I had carried to the stand with me.
"This copy is bound with a paper pattern on the sides," I pointed out, "which is very unusual. It seems to match one that is currently missing from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. According to my notes, it was bought from Ars Ancienne, a Swiss firm specializing in rare books, and here is a penciled note reading 'AA,' which matches that. My description also mentions that an earlier stamp has been erased from the title page, and here you can see the traces. Furthermore, it looks as if two bookplates have been removed from inside the front cover. One of them is horizontal, which is rather uncommon. I just happen to have examples of the Franklin Institute bookplates with me.
"With a flourish I produced the two bookplates, one vertical and the other horizontal, and demonstrated that they fit the rectangular glue marks like keys in their locks. The book was handed around to the jury.
Before I could go farther, Marcy turned to Exhibit B, a small yellow bookseller's catalog from Old Printed Word in Washington. Had I seen this before?
"Many people know I'm searching for every possible copy of Copernicus' book, and so in fact three years ago, in the summer of 1981, a friend sent me a copy of this catalog. I saw at once that it included a De revolutionibus. It jumped right out at me, because, while most of the books on the list cost $50 or $100, the Copernicus is offered at $8,750."
"What did you do then?" Marcy asked.
I replied that in 1971 I had made notes on the first- and second-edition copies at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, but when I returned four years later to recheck several details, the second edition couldn't be found. The description in the yellow catalog seemed to match the copy I knew was missing from Philadelphia, so I called the librarian at the Franklin Institute and suggested that he get in touch with the FBI.
The jury was spared some of the details of what had happened next. Emerson Hilker, the librarian, called the Philadelphia FBI; but upon learning that the book had disappeared more than seven years before, the bureau promptly lost interest. The statute of limitations had passed and with it the possibility of a criminal suit for the theft of the book. Hilker rang back with this bad news, wondering what he should do next. "Can you make 100 percent sure that the book is ours?" he asked me.
I told him that I could call the bookstore and ask for it to be sent on approval. A few additional details might be more definitive. So I phoned the Old Printed Word bookshop to inquire about getting the book.
"I'm sorry," the proprietor, Dean Des Roches, responded when I called him. He explained that the bookshop didn't actually own the book but simply had it on consignment, so he couldn't send it on approval. But when I learned he actually had the book in the shop, I asked him to describe the condition of the title page more exactly. He fetched the book and told me the title page had a tiny wormhole, and then he added that it looked as if an oval library stamp had been erased.
That perfectly matched my notes, which recorded both the wormhole and the oval library stamp, so I called Hilker back, saying I was now completely convinced that the book was the Franklin Institute's missing copy.
Only later did I learn from the Washington, D.C., FBI what had transpired after the call from the Franklin Institute. Mr. Hilker had simply called the Old Printed Word bookshop, declared that the book was theirs, and asked for it to be sent back. This thoroughly alarmed Des Roches, for he was already suspicious of the consignor and had wondered how the book had been obtained in the first place. On the other hand, if it had been acquired legitimately, he would have been liable for some thousands of dollars if he merely mailed the Copernicus back to Philadelphia. So he called the local FBI, explained what had happened, and mentioned that the consignor, John Blair, apparently had lots of other items in his Maryland home.
Although the original theft was safely beyond the statute of limitations, the transport of stolen goods across state lines was a federal felony and presumably more recent. If so, the clock had been set running again.
Feeling sure a felony was afoot, the FBI agents posed as book buyers and paid a visit to Mr. Blair. They confiscated hundreds of small trade catalogs, once considered almost throwaway items, but now valuable ephemera from America's early industrialization. Many still bore the stamps of the Franklin Institute Library. Of special interest was a medical manuscript written by the famous colonial doctor from Philadelphia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush.
Furthermore, it turned out that John Blair had been an employee of the Franklin Institute. It was well known in library circles that the institute had fallen on hard times, and it was rumored that the library was in a state of considerable confusion and with low security. The trade catalogs, for example, had been tied in bundles and crowded into the aisles of the stacks, so that users simply walked over them to get to the books. Many bundles had broken open, and hundreds of catalogs were strewn randomly in the aisles. When Blair claimed that the trade pamphlets were simply being thrown out by the institute, he had a defense that was potentially highly embarrassing to the library. Nevertheless, these titles were still listed in the library catalog, with no evidence that they had been thrown out, and surely the Benjamin Rush manuscript would never have been discarded.
In the FBI's opinion, the case was clear except for one small detail: The bureau wasn't sure precisely when the Copernicus book had crossed the state line from Maryland into the District of Columbia. But when, in the opening statement, the defense lawyers had conceded that this had happened recently, the FBI agents out in the hallway were elated. It became clear that the proposed defense would take a completely different tack.
Because the defense had listed another bookseller as a witness, the prosecution had deduced that the attorney for the defense, Andrew Graham, would try to argue that the Copernicus book was worth less than $5,000, in which case the crime would be a misdemeanor and not a felony. Had the book been a first edition, that would have been no defense, since copies were then selling for around $40,000. With a second edition, as in this case, the situation was more ambiguous. I had been alerted to the possibility that the value might become an issue, so before the trial began I had called a London dealer who had a second edition on offer just to check on the current price.
Eric Marcy ended my interrogation by asking how much Exhibit A, the Copernicus book, was worth.
Graham leapt to his feet at once. "Objection! The professor is not a specialist in book pricing!"
"Objection overruled," announced the judge, who was no doubt as curious as the jury concerning what price an old book might fetch.
To give an idea of the book's value, I cited several recent auction records. At an Amsterdam sale in 1978 a second edition had fetched $6,500, and at a Munich auction three years later a copy had brought $9,000. A few months earlier I had personally sold a copy to the library of San Diego State University for $6,800. Again Graham objected, saying that the current price was irrelevant to the price a few years back (when the supposed crime had occurred), and again he was overruled. Then I mentioned that a copy currently offered in London carried a price of $12,500. The present copy was not as good as the one in London, I admitted. After all, the defense had deliberately exhibited its wormholes to the jury. Once more Graham objected on the grounds that I was unqualified to price books, and this time the judge told him to stop interrupting me. Perhaps the asking price in the Old Printed Word catalog-that is, $8,750-was a little high, I said, but it seemed generally right.
Now it was time for a cross examination. Had I been informed, asked the defense attorney, that the book had to be worth at least $5,000 for a felony trial to continue? Yes, I knew this, I said, because I had heard the charges read at the beginning of the trial.
With the air of someone about to play his trump card, Graham then asked, "When you discussed the various auctions, you didn't mention them all, did you? For instance, what about the price of only $2,200 fetched at a Sotheby's sale three years ago? And what about their sale on April 30, 1979, where the copy went for only $3,500?" He looked very pleased, as if he had just punctured my credibility.
That's true, I said, but it takes two to tango. If at a particular sale there is only one interested buyer, he can walk away with a real bargain, below the actual market value. I mentioned that I had recently seen the first copy he had cited, which was in a private collection in Italy. It had very interesting manuscript annotations, and if it were offered by a dealer, the price would have been several times higher than the auction bid. As for the other copy, it was very tattered, with pages browned and water-stained, which greatly diminished its value.
Being a competent defense lawyer making the best of a difficult situation, Graham didn't blanche but bravely carried on. "Have you ever taken a course in book appraising?"
"No, I've never taken such a course. Nor have I ever taken a course in the history of science, even though I'm Professor of the History of Science at Harvard."
"Just answer my question!" he snapped, but it was too late. Sub voce, the judge murmered, "He's trying to."
I was about to step down when the prosecutor rose for a final query. Marcy asked, "Have you ever communicated with members of the defense? Have you ever refused to help them?"
I responded that I had indeed spoken with Mr. Graham and answered his questions. He had asked me how I was sure that the book was the one missing from the Franklin Insitute, and I explained it in detail. With that I left the stand, rather awed by Marcy's quick-witted ingenuity in framing that parting shot.
Excerpted from THE BOOK NOBODY READ by OWEN GINGERICH Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Owen Gingerich is senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, research professor of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University, and a leading authority on Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus. He has been vice president of the American Philosophical Society and chairman of the U.S. National Committee of the International Astronomical Union. He and his wife, Miriam, live in Cambridge, Massachusetts; avid travelers (he has successfully observed twelve total solar eclipses), they collect rare books and shells.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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There are lots of books on Copernicus. Despite the title, there is a lot of great reasons to read this accounting of the Copernican Revolution. Gingerich has thoroughly researched the topic and presents the material well. I saw him speak on this book and bought it on the spot. This is one you just cannot put down until you finish.