Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 12, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SATURDAY TRIVIA QUESTION....What was the world's first bestseller? This depends on your definition of "world" and "bestseller," of course, but Diarmaid MacCulloch, in The Reformation, makes the case that it was the very first book in the "Complete Idiot's Guide" series, written by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1500:

He created the first best-seller in the (then very brief) history of printing after a stroke of bad luck: Desperate for cash after English customs officials had confiscated the sterling money in his luggage, he compiled a collection of proverbs with detailed commentary about their use in the classics and in Scripture. This work, the Adagia (1500), was a huge commercial success, since it offered the browsing reader the perfect shortcut to being a well-educated humanist, and Erasmus much expanded it in successive editions.

It's good to hear that books of this nature have a long and honorable history. Erasmus probably would have made a pretty good blogger.

Sadly, although this anecdote was interesting, the rest of MacCulloch's book is rather emphatically not recommended. I picked it up on a whim a couple of weeks ago because I've long thought that (a) the Reformation is probably the key inflection point in European history and (b) that I was undereducated about it. I still feel that way, but if I had bothered to crack open the book in the bookstore and read even a few pages I would have realized that far from being a general history of the period, it's a 600 page monograph about the theological minutiae of each and every little sect that sprung up anywhere on the continent during the 16th century.

Now, some of that is surely necessary to an understanding of the Reformation, but after 200 pages of it I finally cried uncle. I think the final straw was a "dauntingly technical" description of the different views of the Eucharist held by Zwingli (a "symbolic memorialist"), Bullinger (a "symbolic parallelist"), and Calvin (a "symbolic instrumentalist"), all of whom are contrasted to Martin Luther, of course, who did not see the Eucharist as symbolic at all. A few pages later I just gave up.

Books like this really don't have much of a home in general purpose bookstores, and perhaps this will teach me to be more careful in the future. Perhaps.

UPDATE: In comments, I gather that some people perhaps taking this post a wee bit more seriously than it should be think I'm suggesting this book should be burned or something. Needless to say, I'm not, and I have no objection at all to 600-page books concerned solely with theological minutiae of early Protestantism. I just don't think they should be marketed as general purpose histories, and it strikes me that this one was. If I'm wrong about that, I offer my abject apologies to everyone associated with the writing, producing, and marketing of this book.

Also the last sentence of the original post has been slightly modified in order to slightly appease my critics.

Kevin Drum 11:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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