The Newton Papers

Despite the usually fascinating history of archives and manuscripts collections, we lack in the number of good studies. Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), is an exemplary example of the genre. Her book opens up with the sale and dispersal of Newton’s papers in 1936 at a Sotheby’s auction in London. She provides a good description of the scale of the materials, with a vast quantity of unpublished materials on a wide range of topics, such as religion and alchemy in addition to his better-known scientific ventures. The book provides insights into the creation of the documents. Newton was an “incessant” note-taker and constantly revising his work, leading to a characterization of the archives that certainly captures the sense of many other collections: “Ultimately – as generations of scholars discovered—Newton’s papers will always remain unfixed and unstable. The manuscripts abound in revisions.” He was his own life-long editor (p. 203).

We also get a good sense of archival work. Newton’s manuscripts represent a large and complex collection, capable of giving up secrets long after Newton’s death; the effort to catalog them was a long and complicated affair. Their nature slowed down their use by scholars, especially those who became involved in producing documentary editions. The history of the Newton materials is placed firmly within the context of development of archives, bibliomania, and the growth and obsession of manuscript collecting. Dry’s book is certainly a good case study about what happens when the fonds of one individual is scattered among private collectors and institutional repositories. But most of all we get a good sense of the importance of archives: “In among his drafts and revisions, we are as close to Newton as his pen was to paper” (p. 211). What a good way to describe why archives remain important to society.

 

 

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