Nerdy, yes, but didn’t Aristotle say that “All men” — all human beings — “by nature desire to know”? He might have added that all adolescents are know-it-alls. To this day, though, I am still drawn to what one might call works of popular scholarship. This fall my nightstand runneth over.
For example, Peter Burke’s “The Polymath: A Cultural History From Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag” catalogues men and women who have contributed significant advances to more than one field of knowledge. While brief accounts of several hundred dead scholars and public intellectuals militates against sustained reading, a few pages at a time about interdisciplinary giants such as Leibniz, Diderot and Germaine de Stael can be energizing. However, like the A-list authors in Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon,” Burke’s intellectual peerage will probably provoke arguments over who’s in and who isn’t. If you count Susan Sontag, why not Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books who commissioned many of her essays and whose familiarity with literature, politics, philosophy, opera and much else made him a legend in his own lifetime?
Would Anthony Grafton, I wonder, qualify as one of our current polymaths? This Princeton professor is our leading authority on classical and humanist scholarship in early modern Europe. His books and essays frequently resurrect fascinating if half-forgotten polymaths, such as astrologer-mathematician Girolamo Cardano, Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, philologist Joseph Scaliger and groundbreaking philosopher of history Giambattista Vico.
Grafton opens his latest essay collection, “Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe,” by describing the traditional modus operandi for scholarly writing during the late Middle Ages: You simply copy extracts from earlier works of approved merit and then maybe add some connecting commentary. Surprisingly, this scissors-and-paste technique can lead to provocative results, largely through the juxtaposition of radically differing texts about the same subject. Set down the creation of the universe as related in Genesis and then add the pagan version outlined by Lucretius and both suddenly invite debate and discussion.
As usual, Grafton presents largely unfamiliar material — his last essay looks at precursors to Spinoza’s rationalist approach to biblical interpretation — in a clear, even breezy style. That said, “Inky Fingers” isn’t just erudite, it’s distinctly recondite, so readers new to Grafton might prefer to start with “The Footnote: A Curious History” or his biography of that goofy crackpot-genius Cardano.
To my mind, Philip Mansel should also make the cut as a contemporary polymath. He’s an expert on both France and the Middle East, having produced histories of Constantinople and the Levant, a biography of the dashing Prince de Ligne and, this fall, the appropriately monumental “King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV.” A few years back, I reviewed Mansel’s anecdote-rich “Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852,” so I’m making his account of the Sun King my new book at bedtime.
Yet I’m tempted to opt instead for Benedetta Craveri’s “The Last Libertines.” Here are pen portraits of seven late 18th-century French aristocrats who, to most Americans, including me, are just romantic-sounding names: the Duc de Lauzun, the Comte de Narbonne, the Chevalier de Boufflers. What could be more agreeable than to read about illicit amours and political intrigues during the twilight of the ancien regime?
By contrast, present-day anxieties confer unwelcome relevance to Richard Ovenden’s “Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.” In it, the director of Oxford’s Bodleian Library emphasizes that attacks on books, archives and recorded information are the usual practice of authoritarian regimes. Control what people know and you control them; control the past and you control the future. Ovenden writes about the legendary book collections lost in antiquity, the destruction of rare manuscripts during Henry VIII’s razing of Catholic monasteries, the relentless Nazi incineration of Jewish writing, Serbia’s effort to wipe out Bosnia’s very identity by shelling its national library and, most recently, the Trump administration’s vile newspeak in which falsehoods are transformed into “alternative facts” and unwelcome truths are dismissed as “fake news.”
Today, Ovenden worries most about our online media behemoths. “Knowledge in digital form,” he reminds us, “is increasingly created by a relatively small number of very large companies, which are so powerful that the future of cultural memory is under their control.” He stresses that “they have no public benefit mission, and any knowledge that they store is kept only to support their commercial operations.” As a result, “a disproportionate amount of the world’s memory has now been outsourced to tech companies without society realizing the fact or being fully able to comprehend the consequences.”
Ovenden, no surprise, suggests that libraries be reconfigured and funded as public storehouses for our digital knowledge, tasked with ensuring that everything is preserved and nothing altered or suppressed. Long ago, libraries began because ancient kingdoms needed to keep accounts, to track taxes and harvests. Today, they can be an essential tool in keeping our leaders and governments accountable. Ovenden argues that libraries should be used to safeguard our digital data, so that the powerful don’t simply delete anything they don’t like or wish to repudiate. As George Orwell pointed out in “1984,” once you can erase the past, the erasure is soon forgotten and the lie becomes the truth.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.