Book People | February 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Let's Not Forget Charlie

I hope you all take a few minutes to read my tribute to Abe Lincoln in the February issue of Fine Books & Collections, just issued in time to observe the bicentennial of the sixteenth president's birth, which has occasioned the release of numerous new books, many of them for children. But I would be remiss if I failed to point out that Feb. 12 is also the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin, and that he, too, is the subject of numerous new books and biographies being published to recognize his manifold accomplishments.

Two I heartily recommend:

darwin_cover.jpgCharles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, by Tim M. Berra, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 114 pages, $19.95, a splendid overview derived from a series of lectures, and beautifully illustrated, with a detailed publishing history of all of Darwin's works.

young_darwin_cover.jpgThe Young Charles Darwin, by Keith Thomson, New Haven, Yale University Press, 228 pages, $28, focusing on the formative decades, including the five-year voyage aboard the Beagle.

It is my modest belief that these two men, Lincoln and Darwin--born on the same day two hundred years ago--produced two of the most consequential texts of the nineteenth century, Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address (1863), Darwin with his On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection (1859).

Not surprisingly, both writings were included in the monumental London exhibition of 1963, Printing and the Mind of Man, an attempt to identify the most influential writings issued during the first five hundred years of print. (For more on this exhibition, see my book, Every Book Its Reader, pp. 17-24.)

John Carter and Percy H. Muir, editors of the exhibition catalog--a modern classic, by the way, in the books-about-books genre--called the Gettysburg Address "immortal, one of the supreme utterances of the principles of democratic freedom."

Tim Berra, in his book, called Darwin's theory of evolution "arguably the greatest idea the human mind ever had, and its proposer, Charles Darwin, is among the most influential scientists who ever lived."

Feb. 12, 1809. Quite a day, indeed, for the birth of genius.