Book reviews are a staple of many academic journals. They are a way to learn about new books in the field and to see what your fellow scholars think of them. And they’ve been around for a really long time.
In my recent work, I have been searching through the early issues of one of the first scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (many of which are freely digitized and searchable by the Royal Society) and I was bemused to discover that book lists and reviews were part of this early journal almost from the get-go.
The first indication that keeping up with the recently published literature on natural philosophy might be of interest to the international reader-base of the Philosophical Transactions comes in Issue Number 8 of Volume 1, January 8, 1665/6, pages 145-146.
Here, “Of some Philosophical and curious Books, that are shortly to come abroad” was published, listing eight recently published works on subjects ranging from physics to geography to astronomy to zoology:
- The origine of formes and qualities by Robert Boyle
- Hydrostatical paradoxes also by Boyle
- “A tract of the Origine of the Nile” by Isaac Vossius (which is noted to be “opposed to that of Monsieur de la Chambre”)
- Two works by Francesco Redi: “A Differtation of Vipers” (presumably a precursor to his work on experiments upon vipers) and “A discourse of the anatomy of a lyon”
- An anonymous account of the history of the Accademia dei Lincei, an Italian scientific academy that existed from 1603-1651
- “A catalogue of Fixed Stars… according to the Observations of Uleg-Beig (a King, and famous Astronomer, who was Great-grand-childe to the famous Tamerlane and one of his Successors in some of his Kingdoms)”1 and which is described as being “a small part” of a larger astronomical treatise “whereof there be divers Persian Manuscript Copies in Oxford” and edited and translated into Latin by Thomas Hyde, “the Library Keeper to the Bodleyan Library in Oxford.”2
Shortly thereafter, in Issue Number 10, March 12, 1665/6, the book reviews proper begin. Here, three anonymous (but likely written by Henry Oldenburg, the originator and first editor of the Philosophical Transactions) reviews examine Boyle’s aforementioned Hydrostatical Paradoxes (p.173-176), Nicolaus Steno’s De Musculis & Glandulis Observationum Specimen (p.176-178), and Reinier de Graaf’s De Succi Pancreatici Natura & Usu (presumably the original publication, since the English translation didn’t appear until 1676!) (p.178):
The start of the review of Boyle’s Hydrostatical Paradoxes reads “This Treatise, promised in Numb.8 of these Papers, is now come forth.” Leading with this review was, perhaps, a bit self serving: Boyle was a prominent member of the Royal Society from its inception, and a good friend of Oldenburg’s. (But really, what’s the point of starting an academic journal if you can’t promote your friends’ works, right?) The review is lengthy, working through the arguments that Boyle makes in the book, and sets the tone for the book reviews that follow: detailed summaries of the contents with light commentary/critique.
The other two reviews in this first batch followed much the same pattern, although the third review got a bit of a short shrift. While the others are both two+ pages, the review for De Succi Pancreatici Natura & Usu got crammed in at the very end of this issue (and no, it isn’t your imagination. The font size on the last page is noticeably smaller!).
After skimming through the first three years worth of book reviews in the Philosophical Transactions, I am left with one inescapable conclusion: book reviews are practically unchanged in 350+ years.
Here are some choice (and probably familiar) excerpts:
Of Thomas Hobbes: “It seems, that this Author is angry with all Geometricians, but himself; yea he plainly saith in the dedication of his Book, that he invades the whole Nation of them; and unwilling, it seems, to be call’d to an account for doing so.” (Issue Number 14, July 2, 1666, p. 253)3
“In this compendious and pretty Edition, the Anonymous Author pretends4 to have rendered these Elements more expeditious, by bringing all together into one place what belongs to one and the same subject.” (Issue Number 15, July 18, 1666, p.261)
“This small Tract (the Subject whereof seems to be new, not treated of hitherto by any we know of in Print) is publish’d both in the Latin and German Tongue, but came to our hands in the latter only; a Latin Copy, designed for us before, having miscarried at Sea, which we have not been able hitherto to get supply’d, because of the scarcity of the Copies of that Edition, as it was signified to us from Amsterdam.” (Issue Number 31, January 6, 1667/8, p.602)
Professional grudges and lost review copies aside, the book reviews in the early issues of the Philosophical Transactions provide a fascinating insight into world of early scholarly communication and community. They point to what Oldenburg and his colleagues in the Royal Society felt were important works to highlight, as well as what the readership of the journal wanted to be informed about. In the history of science, we often look to personal letters and direct published interchanges for the ways in which the emerging scientific community grappled with methodologies and theory. Having even just skimmed the surface of these early book reviews, I believe they may provide another window into the on-going conversation of early science.
- Uleg-Beig is the 15th century Persian astronomer Ulugh Beg. And there’s probably another blog post’s worth about the fact that the English author is using Tamerlane, of all people, as a point of legitimacy for him and this book.
- Hyde’s book was published under both the Persian and Latin titles and was the first printed edition of Ulugh Beg’s work. Also, “Library Keeper” is possibly the best job title ever.
- This less than positive review of Hobbes is hardly surprising: Hobbes had been publically attacking the emerging scientific inquiry in general, and Robert Boyle in particular, since the early 1660s. For an overview of Hobbes’s objections to Boyle’s techniques see Chunglin Kwa, Styles of Knowing: A New History of Science from Ancient Times to the Present (Univeristy of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), pages 89-91.
- This word seems to have had less of a negative connotation in the 17th century than it does to modern readers; it is used frequently in these book reviews, and seems to simply mean “profess, claim” without the implication of making it up.