Looking it up, long before Britannica

By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 13, 2011

There's no disguising the fact that Ann M. Blair - Harvard professor of history, author of "The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science" (1997) and MacArthur fellow - has written a deeply scholarly book. It focuses, after all, on Latin reference works compiled mainly during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the early modern era. Nonetheless, "Too Much to Know" is a fascinating account of the traditions, ideals and practices of early "information management," in particular "the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts" in the centuries before our own computer age.

While "Too Much to Know" does eschew academic jargon, it isn't by any means folksy, nor does it engage in the kind of human-interest anecdote made popular by those bestsellers about how the ancient Greeks or the Irish saved civilization. You'll need to pay attention while you read. Blair does translate virtually all her Latin, however. Best of all, though, she packs her pages with lots and lots of facts. If you like to know things, even in a world in which there is already too much to know, Blair's book is a mini-library in itself.

She begins by citing some contrasting classical views about info-lust. Pliny the Elder - author of the multi-volumed "Natural History" - read omnivorously and continuously, believing that "there is no book so bad that some good cannot be gotten from it." By contrast, Seneca maintained that, life being short, "you should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before." As it happens, these two opposing impulses led to the evolution of commonplace books, volumes made up of important excerpts and key quotations transcribed from standard authors.

As every student used to know, just choosing and copying passages from one's own reading is an excellent way of mastering a subject. But in earlier times, when individual books were scarce and expensive, students and preachers, princes and philosophers often turned to digests and compendia - the equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" - for much of their knowledge. Some of these were massive reference tomes, such as Isidore of Seville's 7th-century "Etymologies," which summarized hundreds of books, and the Byzantine "Suda" of the late 10th century, which consisted of 31,342 historical, biographical and lexical entries and more than 1.5 million words.

Vincent of Beauvais justified his own 13th-century "Speculum maius" - probably the largest reference work compiled in the West before 1600 - because "the multitude of books, the shortness of time, and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind." By the early Renaissance, the best-known proto-encyclopedia was probably the "Theatrum vitae humanae" (1565) of Theodor Zwinger (1533-1588). Blair writes that unlike florilegia - bouquets or collections of favorite quotations - "the 'Theatrum' focused on examples of human behavior drawn from ancient but also medieval and even contemporary history, sorted in an elaborate hierarchical system of headings. The stated purpose of the compilation was to guide readers in their behavior in any situation by providing examples both good and bad."

All these books offered something for everyone, especially for busy men in public life without sufficient time for study. For example, Henry VIII owned the "Polyanthea," a much reprinted collection of quotations covering myriad subjects first published in 1503. Blair wryly points out that the king annotated "topics of particular personal and political interest to him (e.g., 'law,' 'matrimony,' 'pope')."

Just how to present information for easy use was a constant vexation. In late antiquity, one might simply find a list of authorities cited. Gradually, though, compilers began to employ categorical headings or to arrange entries alphabetically or according to elaborate branching diagrams of knowledge. "One historian has counted nineteen different systematic orders present in early modern encyclopedic works, including the order of creation, of the Decalogue, of the biblical narrative," and various "chronological and geographical orders," as well as others that follow "the chain of being."

While people during the Middle Ages and later drew much of their learning from dictionaries and digests, the more ambitious also took extensive notes from whatever classics came their way. By the Renaissance one could even purchase the equivalent of "Reading for Dummies": Francesco Sacchini's 1614 "De ratione libros cum profectu legendi libellus," i.e.,"A Little Book on How to Read With Profit." Soon the use of individual paper slips, supported by cutting and pasting, allowed one to take notes from multiple sources and then easily reorder them for one's own purposes. In the 17th century, Thomas Harrison invented a "note closet" - essentially a wall of hooks, with 3,000 headings, upon which one could arrange individual slips bearing on every aspect of learning and knowledge. The philosopher Leibniz apparently owned one of these note closets.

Concurrently, more and more people began to criticize the use of shortcuts, of mere consultation reading and data mining rather than a truly intensive engagement with a text. For the scholar Adrien Baillet, says Blair, "the most serious failing of the reference book was to accumulate material divorced from and without reference to its original context." In China, the use of "leishu" - condensations intended to assist in preparing for government tests - led to periodic complaints like that of Zhu Xi, who maintained that they "encouraged fragmented, careless, and cursory reading whereas true learning required slow reading and deep understanding of the classics and memorization of passages with attention to their original context."

In 17th-century Europe, the new philosophy of Bacon and Descartes urged the rejection of received authority and the search for truths from scratch. By the mid-18th century, the Latin reference book was gradually being replaced by vernacular equivalents, among them Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary" and Diderot's "Encyclopedie." Blair stops here, though it's hard not to detect a nod to the origins of Wikipedia in her final sentences:

"As I have tried to show, the Latin reference books represented the collective note-taking of multiple generations of scholars trawling ancient texts and commentaries on them, presented with thoughtful appeals to the public good and the diversity of readers' interests. . . . These works devised innovative methods of managing textual information in an era of exploding publications to which our own methods of reading and processing information are indebted."

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.


Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age

By Ann M. Blair

Yale Univ. 397 pp. $45

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