Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review: Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto

In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of Rene Descartes were dug up in the middle of the night and transported from Sweden to France under the watchful eye of the French ambassador. This was only the beginning of the journey for Descartes' bones, which, over the next 350 years, were fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in seances, and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand.

Don't let the blurb on the back cover fool you: this is not a mystery, not a pageturner. More than anything, this is a book on the history of philosophy, starting with the influence of Rene Descartes and continuing through today.

That is not what I expected, to be honest, when I requested the book. I enjoy both non-fiction and mysteries, and a good real-life detective story involving a missing skull and a famous philosopher sounded like an episode of the tv show Bones come to life. Unfortunately, while there is some mystery surrounding the authenticity of the skull that most believe to be the genuine article (at one point there were at least 4 skulls or skull fragments held up as the real thing), that is not the main thrust of this tale. Most of this book discusses the impact of Descartes' theories on the philosophers, scientists, theologians, rulers and politicians who followed him, as well as the ordinary people who lived under their influence. For students of philosophy, it would be a very interesting tale; sadly, I did not find it a compelling story.

My book was an Advanced Reader Copy; you can purchase yours at


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up. This one doesn't sound like it's for me.

Cathy said...

Thanks for this review. I did have the book on a wish list, but now I know it's not my cuppa!

Anonymous said...

Jen from Devourer of Books was saying she was having a hard time with this book. I'm definitely going to pass on this one. Thanks for the warning.

BTW, I got my copy of The Good Thief yesterday and I can't wait to read it. Thanks for such a wonderful giveaway!

Anonymous said...

I'm halfway through this, but put it down in favor of a relatively quick read of "The Fire" by Katherine Neville. We'll see when I finish "The Fire" later if I feel the tenacity to go back and finish it.

Cheryl Vanatti said...

I requested this one too and it's been languishing on my shelf for weeks. Now it'll probably stay there some time longer ;-)

Anonymous said...

I've got to share a joke with you ...

Descartes walks into a bar.
The bartender says "would you like a beer?"
Descartes says "I think not"
And, poof! He disappears!

(OK, you've got to know his famous "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefor I am) to get it ... but it's pretty good for a philosophy joke!

Lisa said...

Actually, Dawn, that one's pretty good. I was chatting online with a friend while I was writing this review and told her I had a headache and I was blaming on Descartes.

She said, "You only *perceive* a headache. It doesn't actually exist."

I said, "Actually, there are only three kinds of matter in the universe: the body, the mind, and this freaking headache...and do you know how incredibly geeky this exchange makes us?"

Anonymous said...

So, did you talk yourself out of the headache? :)

My kids will sit for hours (OK, maybe 15 minutes, but it feels like hours) asking each other:

when will tomorrow get here?
tomorrow never comes.
yes it does. tomorrow is tomorrow.
No, because when we get to "tomorrow", it's "today", so tomorrow never gets here!
(and so on. until someone cries)