Sunday, December 21, 2008

Giordano Bruno

When reading Paul Auster’s latest novel Man in the Dark, I speculated that the alternate universe he was writing about was in fact the real one, and that the past eight years under the current administration was the alternate reality. Auster dropped the name of Giordano Bruno within his narrative, claiming that he was the father of the multiple universe theory, and after a comment by my friend Allyn Gibson, I determined to find out more about him.

I began by getting my hands on a seemingly decent scholarly work by Dorothea Waley Singer called Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought. Yet the prose was so dry that I did little more than skim after the first dozen pages (after seriously pondering a quick gouging of my eyes), then dropping the book only to learn much more from a thorough read of the Wikipedia entry. However, a much better reviewed biography of Bruno was recently released and pointed out to me over the weekend.

Imagine my surprise when that book, Ingrid D. Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic, landed in today’s New York Times Book Review. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst revie
ws I’ve read anywhere in the past year. Anthony Gottlieb does little more than provide a Cliff’s Notes version of Bruno’s life, shedding no light on historical circumstances that he lived in nor analyzing the approach Rowland took to the material.

In what is likely a full-page review (I read the Times online), Gottlieb only renders an opinion with the last hundred words. I’m not all that sure that he understands what a review is supposed to be, which also begs the question of how this slipped by editor Sam Tanenhaus and made it into today’s issue. Rather than compiling a list of facts about Bruno’s life, perhaps the book could have been placed in context with other works on Bruno and/or the time period, helping a potential reader determine if the book is something they might enjoy. A review exists only to help a reader make that decision; I am less interested in reading a list of facts about Bruno that I could find easily in any number of places, but instead would like to know about this particular book. How good is Rowland at presenting scholarly work to a lay audience, why should I read/not read this book instead of another on the philosopher’s life?

Gottlieb criticizes Rowland at the end of the piece, finally talking about the book rather than the man, claiming ‘the book has too little examination of [Bruno’s] ideas.’ Funny coming from a guy who details exactly none of Rowland’s.

Is it really too much for me to expect even the slightest bit of competence from the leading platform for book reviewing?

2 comments:

Bill Ectric said...

Thanks for this review. You have piqued my interest in Giordano Bruno as the possible "father of multiple universe theory." I want to read more about him, but obviously not the Rowland book. Can you recommend a good place to start?

Jon Polk said...

Welcome, Bill. The standard Bruno volume seems to be Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates. It's the book I put down for Singer's. I've also flipped through Hilary Gatti's Giordano Bruno & Renaissance Science which also looks to be excellent, better contextualizing Bruno's work within the greater sphere of the time's scientific thought.

I'll probably read the Rowland book in the next couple of months because I've read positive things about it elsewhere. I'll post a review here when I do.