by Frederick L. Nussbaum
One of the few authorship sins that I refuse to forgive is mistitling a nonfiction book. The title of a book should clearly indicate its general content. If that title is metaphorical or otherwise non-descriptive, then it should have a subtitle that provides some descriptive information. For example, Descartes’ Error, by Antonio R. Damasio, is subtitled Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. That makes sense. Similarly, The 10,000 Year Explosion, but Cochran and Harpending, is subtitled How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Again, that does the job quite well.
But this title is misleading. I expected that it would delve into the period that triggered the Enlightenment. Certainly the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica had a huge impact, and the Thirty Years’ War in the first half of that century triggered a broad sense of revulsion at the extremities to which religion drove communities. Europe certainly underwent a sea change in attitudes during the latter half of the 17th century; this book seemed ideally titled to explain that sea change.
It doesn’t do that. Instead, it is a general history of Europe during that period. It is an abstracted history, to be sure: it does not dwell on the details of kings, battles, revolutions, and so forth. Instead, it starts off with a single chapter on changes in attitudes towards science during the period. But then it veers away from its title subject to discuss changes in attitudes towards governments, religion, international relations, and religion. Finally, it closes with a long and dreary chapter on European expansion and colonization. A number of pages are devoted to the rise of pirates and buccaneers – what do they have to do with science and reason?
So I’m angry with the author, the editor, and the publisher for pawning off a book under a misleading title. The only consolation I can imagine is that the book, printed in 1951, is out of date and everybody associated with it is surely dead by now.