Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Nicole Howard's "Loath to Print"

Nicole Howard is a professor of history at Eastern Oregon University. She is the author of The Book: The Life Story of a Technology.

Howard applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Loath to Print: The Reluctant Scientific Author, 1500–1750, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page recounts a moment when Christian Huygens, the Dutch astronomer and mathematician, shared copies of his 1656 treatise on Saturn with colleagues in France. This small publication proposed that Saturn had moons, but it also contained an anagram (unsolvable code) which posited Huygens’ theory that Saturn had a ring around it. He wanted to publish this secret to secure credit for it without actually divulging the idea. When, three years later, he had enough data to support this theory of a ring, he published a full book on it, System of Saturn. Copies of this work were strategically sent to astronomers whom Huygens determined were the most useful for assessing and verifying his theory.

Page 99 does not shine a light on the totality of the book’s argument, but it does illuminate one aspect of that thesis: the idea that scientists like Huygens worked to carefully create their own “custom” audiences for a work.

What the Page 99 Test does here is provide the reader with a key point of entry to the larger argument of the book, which is that scientists in the period we often call “the scientific revolution” were not nearly as enamored with the printing press as historians have imagined. Rather, they viewed the press as a liability, a tool that threatened their ideas by making them available to readers who lacked the training or skill to assess them fairly. The introduction describes an array of complaints about printing that early modern scientists expressed. Subsequent chapters explore the ways that authors dealt with these lamentations. Some circumvented the press altogether or manipulated the publication process in order to target readers of their choosing. Page 99 hits on this, as Huygens tried to secure his reputation in astronomy by sending fifty-three copies of his Saturn treatise to specific individuals, each of whom could strategically help him. Other chapters look at scientists who explicitly tried to discourage certain “ignorant” readers, or who developed their own private printing methods in order to reach a narrow audience of their choosing. Ultimately, this is a book about how scientists in this rich period looked at the democratizing tool of the printing press, saw little advantage in it, and worked out various alternative ways to disseminate their ideas.
Learn more about Loath to Print at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue