The attractive power of Newton’s archive

When a student comes and tells you that she wants to work on Newton but she needs some guidance into the subject and one or two “good introductory books” there is always a moment of silence. The answer is difficult. I can perhaps put together a list of ten books, together with the strong recommendation to read them carefully and always be aware of the biases of their own author. Be particularly careful with biographies: in my experience, it is useful to read a biography of the biographer first (even if it is just a short notice in the Dictionary of National Biography). But two books? Well, since I discovered Sarah Dry’s book The Newton Papers:The Strange and True Odissey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts my task has been made much easier. Here is one of the two books. Not that I think that two books can ever be sufficient. But this one is a wonderful introduction as well as a very serious warning: the study of Newton is not for everyone, and, much more than other academic subjects, there are lions and shipwrecks wherever you look. And yet, few academic subjects exercise such a pull on one’s imagination; and Dry’s book is precisely about that: about the attractive power of Newton’s archive.