Why I Love Oregon, and some thoughts on subtitles: Sunday Newton and the Counterfeiter Review Update

So, another week, another seven days of  hope that the wide world will get a chance to hear of my new book.

Have I mentioned I have a book recently out?  Newton and the Counterfeiter? (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound)  I have?  Oh good.

I’m going to write a “diary of a trade book” entry (see this for the most recent posting; type “diary” in the search box of the blog to find the rest) — maybe more than one –about this problem:  how to generate enough attention to a non-A list book so that the audience that might value it has a chance to find out about.  There has been some lovely notice in the blogosphere — see this for a partial accounting — and I’ve been trying to get the word out in some novel (to me) ways too.   But it’s still nowhere near good enough, judging by either sales outcomes or the things that I realize in mild hindsight that I could have done better.  Some of that I can still correct, I hope, some is just a lesson to be learned…)

In any event, what has been very gratifying is that just about everyone who has taken a look at the book has liked it, sometimes a lot.  So far there have been only two newspaper reviews, this very satisfying one from a couple of weeks ago in the Providence Journal…and now, this last Thursday, another, even more gratifying to any author, this piece in The Oregonian.

Key quotes:

There are any number of settings where we might imagine Isaac Newton holding forth in February of 1699 — under his famed apple tree, say, or before an august assembly of the Royal Society. Draining drams with counterfeiters in a lowlife London pub called the Dogg, though, seems less likely. But that’s just what Britain’s greatest scientist was doing — and in Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, Thomas Levenson has done an admirable job of explaining how that odd scene came about…..

And so the government called on the era’s greatest mind to run the royal Mint — a move roughly equivalent to asking Stephen Hawking to manage a TARP bailout. It is here that Levenson’s book especially shines: for, as unlikely a figure as Newton appears for the job, Levenson shows that his deep experience of precious metals — and his decisive grasp of mathematics — actually made him an ideal choice….

Newton and the Counterfeiter is as finely struck as one of Newton’s shillings, and just as shiny in its use of new technology; it owes much to Levenson’s canny use of the digitized records of the Old Bailey court system, as well as the online Newton Project, which has digitized Newton’s notebooks. The result is a history that, if it doesn’t change Newton’s primary reputation, certainly shows that there’s more than meets the eye in our familiar genius. We are accustomed to enshrining Newton in the sciences: But G-men and bankers, it turns out, owe him a debt of gratitude as well.

Sweet, if I do say so as shouldn’t. (Links in the original.)

And then there is the latest blog reaction, not quite to the book itself (which the post’s writer, half way through, seems to like well enough) but to it’s subtitle:  “The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.”  I’m going to post a short “Diary” entry on this subject too, or rather the whole conundrum of titling one’s baby, but here, briefly, let me respond to the complaint presented by the author of a delightful new history of science blog,  Renaissance Mathematicus.

Briefly, RM states, correctly, that Newton’s detective career is not completely unknown, writing,

I for one have known all about Mr Chaloner and his skirmishes with Newton for many years having, like anybody really interested in Newton, read Frank Manuel’s excellent psychogram, A Portrait of Newton, originally published in 1968. Manuel delves fairly deeply into the Newton Chaloner relationship as one of the main section of his book. The relationship also comes up in the, even older and somewhat more specialised, works of Sir John Craig on Newton’s time at the Royal Mint. Now one could argue that these are texts for specialists and therefore relatively unknown. However the standard and widely read biography of Newton is Richard Westfall’s Never at Rest, which devotes five pages to Newton and Chaloner. All of this is of course known to the author who draws particular attention to Manuel’s biography in his bibliographical essay at the back of his book. My irritation could be removed by the simple act of qualifying the offending ‘unknown’, ‘relatively unknown’ or ‘little known’ for example or just removing it completely leaving “The Detective Career etc.

RM is right on the money.  (sorry)  Manuel’s work was in fact the starting point for my whole project — for it was there, researching a completely unrelated project in the early ’90s that I first read Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to Newton, and stored in my hip pocket the question of what could possibly have brought two such disparate characters to the point of correspondence.

Sir John Craig is the only scholar that I know of who has devoted sustained attention to Newton’s career at the Mint, writing one very slim volume on his entire career there, and two brief articles in the early fifties on Newton’s investigative career.

And everyone who works on Newton owes a debt to Richard Westfall, whose biography is simply the best.  As in the first America’s Cup, there is no second.

And certainly, I and my publisher could have left off the word “unknown,” or substituted something like “amazing” or some such.

But I have to say that I’m rather unmoved by this criticism.  I don’t love any subtitle…I aim for titles (and usually miss) that are sufficient unto themselves (like Einstein in Berlin).

But in this instance I think (a) RM overstates the degree to which any of the three sources cited above (or the handful of others I mention in my bibliography) really delve Newton’s detective career beyond the mere fact that it existed.  Manuel uses it as a leaping off point for some Freudian speculation on how Newton’s miserable childhood made him vicious — a claim I acknowledge and dispute in my own book.  Westfall does indeed write about Chaloner — but only on the sequence of events in the case, and not in any detail on the steps Newton took to address the challenge Chaloner and other counterfeiters.  Craig penetrates that part of the story the most in his two articles (not the book), and I hope I adequately recognize my debt to his work of a half century ago; but he does not attempt, as I do, to show how Newton embedded himself in the networks of criminal London in order to make his case.

All of which is to say that the fact that Newton pursued counterfeiters is, as RM says, part of grab bag of things that all Newtonians sort of know, as part of the biographical sequence within which the stuff people are “really” interested in gets placed.  But I stand by the implied claim that my book is the first one to try to give this element of Newton’s life its full due.

And then there’s (b):  I’m sorry, but I’m in the trade book business.  I’m publishing to as wide an audience as I can get.  And while it is certainly fair to state that the scholarly community is aware of Newton’s Mint career, and of the fact that he pursued a chap called Chaloner, almost everyone else does not.* If its hyperbole to call this story “unknown,” it’s only in the sense that it is known to a few hundred or perhaps a few thousands of people with a specialized interest in this topic.  Perhaps I spent too long covering astronomy, but a story that is still untold to well in excess of 99% of the people who might be interested in it is, to certain, not unreasonable value of the term, “unknown.”

Or at least that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. ;)  But do go read RM, both because I think his blog is fun, and you might want to get his side.

*Just to add: most Newton scholars don’t really “know” much, if anything more than this fact.  I spoke with many of the most eminent in the Newton community for the purpose of this book, and I received a much greater degree of welcome than I did, for example, from the Einstein community, despite the fact that both groups are quite proprietary about the objects of their scrutiny.

The reason?  Well Simon Schaffer vastly more knowledgeable about both Newton and the history of the scientific revolution and its social context than I will ever be, had a pretty typical reaction :  when first we met he told me that he hoped that my book would do for Newton what my Einstein book had done for that figure — place him  in a context that would surprise people enough to make them take a second look at an iconic figure often obscured by his own myth.

So another argument for the subtitle is that something is not generally “known” if the knowledge one has of it leads towards a misleading or false conclusion…which is another notion that my book attempts to attack, all the while remaining what New York Magazine accurately, of course, termed one of this summer’s best beach reads:

Levenson gives us a historical metamorphosis you’d never believe if it weren’t so well-documented: Isaac Newton—the antisocial human calculator who revolutionized Enlightenment science—as badass London supercop.

Image:  Vittore Carpaccio, c. 1507.

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2 Comments on “Why I Love Oregon, and some thoughts on subtitles: Sunday Newton and the Counterfeiter Review Update”

  1. Thony C. Says:

    A wonderful rebuttal of my scurrilous criticism of your subtitle and then you have the charm and grace to recommend my paltry scribblings! You sir are truly a gentleman and a scholar.

    I hope to post my highly but not totally positive review of the book itself by the end of the week🙂


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