President Ramaley's Bookshelf: September 2010
I rarely set out with a particular goal in mind when I pick up something to read but one thing does tend to lead to another and sometimes my reading pathways converge. A few weeks ago, I read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and followed the story of how a beautiful Jewish manuscript, the “famed Sarajevo Haggadah,” made its way from its origins in fifteenth century Spain to the hands of an Australian rare book dealer. As the rare book dealer seeks to preserve this rare and extraordinary book, tiny clues come to light and a beautifully wrought story unfolds about the person who made the book and the people who possessed it over the centuries.
As I finished the book—my head filled with rich and wonderful stories about the ancient text and its fortunes—I remembered that I had, waiting in my “read me when you can find time” pile, a book entitled The Archimedes Codex, written as a sequence of separately authored chapters by Reviel Netz, a professor of Classics and Philosophy and a student of ancient mathematics, and his collaborator, William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
The Archimedes Codex is a battered and badly damaged medieval manuscript, a palimpsest—a book made of pages scraped clean and written over by a scribe in the 13th century. Hidden beneath the words of the prayer book that was inscribed on the old pieces of parchment were a number of ancient texts. One of them was the earliest surviving manuscript by Archimedes. After exquisitely careful study, Netz and his colleagues discovered that Archimedes had foreshadowed The Calculus, combinatorics and the concept of infinity. The hidden text also revealed that, in contrast to modern science where insights are relayed through equations and where diagrams are used as a kind of explanation of the deeper meaning (i.e., a teaching tool), ancient philosophers, Archimedes being especially notable among them, thought through problems with diagrams. Ancient diagrams are not illustrations. They are the essential logic of the proposition being explored.
One book was about the imagined story of a very special text. The other is the reconstruction of a very real text, a discovery of stunning significance. Both are riveting detective stories and both are a must read. However, I couldn’t help but wish that the speculations from real clues could be as rich and complete as the fictional story.
Judith A. Ramaley
Winona State University
Book: People of the Book
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Book: The Archimedes Codes
Authors: Reviel Netz and William Noel