Inside River Run
Letter of Recommendation
Letter of Recommendation
Case of the Cursed Book
By Jocelyn Bagg
Scott Luddin has as famous a taste for the unusual as for pizza. The computer world’s most colorful techie, the founder and former CEO of Arachnid Games, has lately been spending his time developing the next generation video game in his computing-lab eyrie high above Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA. But last week he emerged to cross the Charles River and bid on the only existing copy of a quirky 18th-century pamphlet on the subject of zero. He was willing to pay anything
for it, and ended up shelling out $923,000 to its former owner.
“It has an amazing history,” Luddin said. “Plus it’s a one-of-a-kind. Just like me.”
The pamphlet was published in London in 1745, a translation from the Italian of the first chapter of a book called De Nihilo Natura (“On the Nature of Nothing”), written some 50 years earlier by famed mathematician Ludovico Verro. The book was a scandal of its time, provoking the Catholic Church to condemn it and, in an unprecedented move, hunt down, confiscate , and burn all the copies in the main square of Florence, where Verro lived. Today, not a single copy of the book is known to exist. But what is thought to be the only copy of the first chapter does—all because one of the priests hurling books into the bonfire, ripped it out before consigning the rest of the book to the flames.
“The burning was unprecedented,” Luddin said. “The Church wanted to make a big deal out of it. A special Mass of renunciation and condemnation was held in the cathedral and several official exorcists performed a ceremony at the site of the burning. Cardinal Peccatori of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was there as well. Peccatori was a leading science denier who believed that the Church had made a huge historical error in not burning Galileo at the stake.”
Some time later, the ripped-out chapter made its way to England where it was translated and published as a pamphlet. The only known copy of the pamphlet was discovered a few months ago inside an atlas that was once part of the library of George Berkeley, an Anglican bishop famous for his books on a philosophic theory called Immaterialism that denies the existence of material
objects. Berkeley believed that all the things we perceive in the world are just ideas in our minds and have no objective reality.
“Bishop Berkeley would have been interested in De Nihilo,” Luddin said, “because it connects very well with Verro’s idea that all reality is at bottom simply mathematic equations—just as today we create realities in our computers that are constructed entirely with software algorithms. These days, many novels and movies are based on the idea that our universe is pretty much the same thing.”
De Nihilo was condemned as heretical by the Pope himself, but there was more than heresy involved. The book was said to be cursed: anyone who read it and understood its meaning would die. The book was known as the Verronian Curse. Several people were said to have either committed suicide or suffered an untimely or mysterious death shortly after finishing it. It was mainly an issue for intellectuals. “The illiterate and the stupid were naturally immune,” Luddin said.
Mention of the pamphlet appears in the corres-pondence of several prominent writers of the 18th century, including Swift, Pope and Samuel Johnson, but never with much descriptive detail. There apparently was an unspoken taboo about quoting from it. When it was cited, it was always within the context of a literary curse—that an idea can be physically deadly in the same way that a snake bite can.
“It’s the notion of an idea so toxic that it can kill that captured people’s imagination,” Luddin said. “People took it seriously, even in the case of the Verro pamphlet, which gives only a hint of what the main thesis of the book was all about.”
Ironically, the manner of Bishop Berkeley’s
Left: Ludovico Verro
The illiterate and the stupid were naturally immune.
death helped to perpetuate the curse. Aged 68 and in good health but for his declining eyesight, Berkeley died in the company of his daughter as she was reading to him. “It’s not known what she was reading,” Luddin explained, “but as rumors spread and the story of Bishop Berkeley’s death entered the popular imagination what she was reading became the Verro pamphlet.”
Luddin said he had not as yet read the pamphlet, but would get around to it at some point. Asked if he was worried about the curse, He laughed and said, “I believe in science, not mythology.”
Luddin said that eventually he would like to include the pamphlet in a museum of scientific curiosities he had had been collecting over the years. “It’s stuff serious people think of as ephemera,” he said. “But it’s always useful to put the important things into perspective. The big world-changing stuff happens: great inventions, great theories—but it all comes out of a world made up largely of nonsense and trivia.”
Above: Bishop Berkeley
1685 - 1753
is a writer, street pantomime and adjunct professor of English at New York University