So: reviews. I read somewhere recently that some writers still feel it the proper thing to do, if not to never read them, then at least not to respond to them. But where’s the fun in that? However, I’m fortunate in having, so far, little to respond to: the Literary Review (not online) and the Daily Telegraph both liked Curiosity. I think it is fair to say that the Scotsman on Sunday and the Sunday Telegraph liked some things about it too, but had reservations about others. I can’t quibble with Doug Johnstone in the former (not least because he was so kind about The Music Instinct), since his reservations are a matter of taste: he wanted less history and more science (which is one reason I’m pleased when I’m not described as a science writer), and found some bits boring. (If you’re looking for science, the late Renaissance court scene isn’t likely to be your thing.) Noel Malcolm in the Sunday Telegraph offers, as one would expect of him, a very well informed opinion. And his point that a key transition is that of objects from being representations of something else to being material things deserving study for their own sake. I have not particularly tackled that issue, and I’m not aware if anyone else has, at least to the point of generating a solid story about it.
Malcolm points out that science historians have been, for some time, saying much of what I’m saying. This is true, and I’m not sure I can see how I could have made it more plain in the book (it is first said in the Preface…) without sounding repetitious. My only real gripe, though, is with his suggestion that Frances Yates is my “leading authority”. The kindest word I can find for this notion is “bizarre”. It is so off the mark that I have to suspect there is some other agenda here (if I have “leading authorities”, they are the likes of Lorraine Daston, Katharine Park, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaeffer, Mary Baine Campbell, Catherine Wilson, Neil Kenny, William Eamon, William Newman, Lisa Jardine…). I know that Yates is now out of favour (although “batty” is putting it a little strongly) – but in any event, she is used here in much the same way as other older historians of science such as Rosemary Syfret, Alistair Crombie, Lynn Thorndike and Margery Purver. Yes, it’s a very odd remark indeed, and I suppose a reminder of the fact that sometimes engaging an expert reviewer has its pitfalls: one can get pulled way off course by the unseen currents of academic battles, antipathies and allegiances.