July 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Archimedes on the Beach

In the week that has passed since my last posting, I have exhausted my supply of recreational reading, a circumstance that has occasioned a trip to Parnassas Books, one of my favorite haunts here on the Cape, located on Route 6A in Yarmouthport, now in its fiftieth year at the same location, with many thousands of volumes packed in a three-story building that dates to the 1800s. In an earlier life the structure was home to Knowles General Store, purveyors of every manner of necessity (in years past some of the old-timers could point out where the pickle barrel stood and where the "wet goods"--the liquor--was sold.) I mentioned Parnassus in an entry five months ago, and am pleased to report that my record of always finding something here of interest--and I can date my fist call on bookseller Ben Muse and his wares  to the summer of 1978--remains intact.

archcod.jpgThis time around, the find was not a particularly old book--even though the stock-in-trade at Parnassus is overwhelmingly second-hand books, with a respectable inventory of antiquarian items and a tastefully-chosen selection of new-releases mixed in--but a work I confess I totally missed when it was released two years ago, and am thrilled--dare I say relieved?--to have come across now. How I missed The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist (New York, De Capo Press, 2007), by Reviel Netz and William Noll, I can not fathom. But there it was, on a shelf, at a very good price, and all I can say is better late than never.

Perhaps a little back-story is in order here. One of the key contemporary collectors I had the privilege to profile in A Gentle Madness was Dr. Haskell F. Norman, a San Francisco psychoanalyst who had put together what was renowned to be the outstanding collection of medical and science books assembled by anyone in the twentieth century. A year before his death in 1996, the Grolier Club in New York published One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine, edited by Hope Mayo and based on a 1994 exhibition conceived and organized by Dr. Norman. In his interview with me, Dr. Norman had explained quite precisely why he had chosen to put his books on the market, so when Christie's announced that it would mount a three-part sale in 1998, I was not surprised at all, and decided in fact to attend each session. When all was said and done the books brought in a whopping $18 million, breaking all sorts of sales records in the process.

Though a landmark auction in and of itself--and a great tribute to one of the most decent people I ever had the privilege of meeting (remind me some day to explain what I have come to regard as the "Haskell Norman Moment" in the writing of all of my books)--the final day of the sale, Oct. 29, 1998, was marked by yet another extraordinary book event. Halfway through the bidding for the 501 lots, a time-out, in essence, was called, so that another mini-auction could proceed in and of itself. What was about to go on the block--and a battery of television cameras was set up in the back of the Park Avenue gallery to record it all--was a dingy, dreary-looking little volume that had come to be known as the Archimedes Codex.

On the surface, the book is a medieval manuscript prepared in the thirteenth century for liturgical use in the form of a palimpsest, which once-upon-a-time was a standard method for recycling leaves of parchment by scraping away unwanted writings, and inking them over with a new text. What made this palimpsest especially noteworthy was that it contained the earliest known writings of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. In a fast-moving exchange of bids, an anonymous American buyer outbid a representative of the Greek government, which had hoped to bring the document back to its native land, paying $2.2 million, the most money ever spent, Nicolas Barker would later quip, "for a text that can not be read with the naked eye."

The Archimedes Codex begins, dramatically enough, with the Christie's sale, and continues on with what becomes a thrilling account of traditional scholarship and modern technology, written by William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, who  headed up a research team of scholars and conservators known as the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, and Reviel Netz, a professor classics and philosophy at Stanford.Their efforts--fully supported and underwritten by the new owner, coyly referred to as Mr. B--resulted in the discovery of several previously undiscovered Archimedes writings, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. The manuscript also contained some lost speeches by Hyperides, a noted orator of ancient times.

Addressing complaints from some quarters that such an important manuscript had not found a permanent home in an institution, Noel offers this: "When the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold, some scholars were outraged that the book had returned to a private collection. But if Archimedes had meant enough to the public, then public institutions would have bought it. Archimedes did not. Public institutions were offered the book at a lower price than it actually fetched at auction, and they turned it down. If you think that is a shame, then it is a shame that we all share. We live in a world where value translates into cash. If you care about what happens to world heritage, get political about it, and be prepared to pay for it."

Once again, a collector came to the rescue. This is a great read, and since January, available in a new paperback edition.