'Out of the Flames': Things to be known


Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Broadway Books. 304 pages. $24.95.

Some people love reading, whether for the thrill of narrative, the uselessness (or gratuitousness) of information, or the fire of ideas; and some -- not always the same people -- love books, their physical existence in the world and in historical time. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone clearly love both. Together they have written three books about book collecting before embarking on the story of the eccentric odyssey of a 16th-century Spanish doctor and his heretical books.

In the tradition of the true Renaissance man, Michael Servetus was fluent in at least five languages and trained in mathematics, law and medicine. He also had strong theological interests and spiritual beliefs that took dangerously independent form: not only did he believe, along with many other partisans of a burgeoning Protestantism, in a reformed, back-to-Scriptural-basics Christianity, but he also thought the idea of the Trinity -- of God in three persons -- was a nonsensical confection of the First Council of Nicaea in 325.

For this, and his disrespectful editorial critique of John Calvin's own theological writings, Calvin had him burned alive along with most of the copies of his works.

Servetus was a good and compassionate doctor, and an observant one, with unusual insight into the working of the body. Seventy-five years before William Harvey, who was credited with discovering the circulation of blood, Servetus already had figured it out -- but his paragraph of writing on the subject, hidden among his theological speculations and burned, would only resurface some 150 years later, as three surviving copies of his book slowly came to light.

Like true collectors, the Goldstones can't resist a good digression into any potentially intriguing corner of their story: They offer jaunty mini-histories of humanism, printing and publishing; Galen, the divine doctor of the ancient world, and its geographer, Ptolemy; Marguerite of Navarre, the liberal, intellectual older sister of Francis I of France; Ignatius of Loyola and the origin of the Jesuit passion for education and scholarship; the politics of 16th-century Geneva; the origins of Unitarianism, the involvement of the Ottoman sultan in religious tolerance in Transylvania; the lives of Leibniz and Voltaire; the sorry state of medical education in the early United States; and the founding of Johns Hopkins. There are many other things besides.

Who knew that in 19th-century English, "to go to Halifax" was slang for dying? Their sheer enthusiasm makes up for a multitude of sins, including giving in to the temptation to use a colorful quote or cite a saucy rumor regardless of the relevance to the narrative or the reliablity of the source; the drama-queeny title and insistence on ending every chapter with a breathless cliffhanger; bending over backward to assert contemporary parallels; and in other small ways talking down to their audience, as if it could possibly be made up of anyone other than bookish people like themselves.

The flaws are those that scholarly historians often attribute to popularizers, and the Goldstones don't pretend to be anything other than informed amateurs. At their best, they exemplify the virtues of popular history as well: recounting a rich and colorful story with the power to teach myriad things, including much we already should have known.

Alane Salierno Mason is a senior editor at W. W. Norton & Co., responsible for an intellectual history of American Catholicism by John McGreevy, and a world history of libraries by Matthew Battles (both forthcoming in spring 2003), among many other books.

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