Referred to by Mr. Merton as his "prodigal brainchild," it reveals the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his prodigious research and the extraordinary patience that also characterize his academic writing. The effort began in 1942, when, in an essay called "A Note on Science and Democracy," Mr. Merton referred to a remark by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He added a footnote pointing out that "Newton's aphorism is a standardized phrase which has found repeated expression from at least the 12th century."
But Mr. Merton did not stop there. Intermittently during the next 23 years he tracked the aphorism back in time, following blind alleys as well as fruitful avenues and finally finished the book in 1965, writing in a discursive style that the author attributed to his early reading and subsequent rereadings of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy." Denis Donoghue, the critic and literary scholar, wrote of the book admiringly as "an eccentric and yet concentric work of art, a work sufficiently flexible to allow a digression every 10 pages or so." He admitted, "I wish I had written 'On the Shoulders of Giants.'"
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