Thursday, August 04, 2005

I have spent the last few weeks doing some serious leg work among the old libraries of Cambridge looking for sixteenth century scientific books. Actually, I have sat at desks and the librarians have kindly done a great deal of leg work for me. They have all been incredibly kind and helpful which makes research a great deal more fun than just slogging away on your own. Add to that being able to work in some of the world's most beautiful buildings (like the Wren Library) in Cambridge in the summer and it has been a very pleasant time.

Of course, part of the fun is being able to handle and look really closely at the rare books. Students doodled five hundred years ago and some of these are quite funny in their way. Likewise, they sometimes had very bad handwriting which is considerably less funny when you are trying to read it. Finally, the pang of recognition when you come across the signature of someone you have already studied closely is spooky. You never really get closer to people than when you handle the books they read and wrote in.

Some books transcend time and place. No matter that I had already read it in English, it was a real thrill when I was handed the first edition of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543) and read the first few lines. This copy was in pristine condition and had not moved from the Perne Library in Peterhouse since the 1590s, before Copernicus had even become controversial or well known. I know a good deal about Andrew Perne, its original owner, and seen his copy of Copernicus included in the list of his books made when he died (valued at a few shillings). To handle the actual book completed the circle. In fact, I had no reason to ask for it, but the librarian knew perfectly how much I would enjoy seeing it and handed it to me anyway.

On the subject of important texts, the Codex Sinaiticus, the world's earliest complete Bible, is to go on the web. I have often seen it in its cabinet in the British Library, pressing my nose against the glass to decipher the first line of John at which it is usually open (not easy to read by any means!). Glad that it is going to be more widely available.

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