Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: "Too Much to Know"

"Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books? Even if, taken out one at a time, they offered something worth knowing, the very mass of them would be a serious impediment to learning from satiety if nothing else, which can do more damage where good things are concerned or simply from the fact that men's minds are easily glutted and hungry for something new, and so these distractions call them away from the reading of ancient authors."

The words of a cantankerous contemporary critic, perhaps? Oh no, that was Erasmus, writing in 1525, blaming the advent of mass printing for a flood of new (mostly bad) books. It's just one of the many examples from Ann Blair's delightful and important new book (I'm sure even Erasmus would agree) Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010). Ours is not the first age by a long shot in which scholars and readers have complained of "information overload," Blair argues - and through a careful study of reference books in the 16-17th centuries and their antecedents, she ably illustrates how earlier readers managed to keep their heads above the flood (and how many of the techniques we still use today originated with their efforts).

Blair begins with a historical and comparative overview of "information management" techniques, offering an examination of the Renaissance compulsion to preserve texts as scholars began to recognize the severe losses of ancient texts suffered during the Middle Ages, and then broadening the scope to look at ancient attempts to organize information (the Pinakes, for example) and at how non-European cultures (Byzantium, Islamic societies, and China) dealt with excessive amounts of information. She then surveys the genres of reference books she considers here, including compendia and florilegia (collections of excerpts), dictionaries, concordances, and proto-encyclopedias.

In the first chapter Blair also makes a key argument: that while many organizational methods were developed during the manuscript era, "Printing shaped both the nature of the information explosion, by making more books on more topics available to more readers, and the methods for coping with it, including a wide range of printed reference tools. Printing diffused more broadly than ever before existing techniques for managing information and encouraged experimentation with new ones, including new layouts, finding devices, and methods of composition" (pp. 13-14). The coming of print coincided with "multiple challenges to received opinion that originated from other causes ... and that spawned new habits of critical thinking and new philosophical systems founded on empirical and rational argument. Just as these various movements would have developed differently without the presence of print, so too the impact of the technology would have been different if it had not coincided with these movements. Instead of trying to reduce the complex impact of a technology or of any particular set of ideas, we can examine how contemporaries responded to an increasingly abundant and varied range of sources of information, both in theory and in practice" (p. 47).

Blair's second chapter serves as a history of note-taking, important since many of the key reference books under consideration began as one scholar's collected notes on a topic (and, when published, served as "ready-made reading notes" for other scholars. Through the deft use of case studies on the taking and use of notes (Pliny the Younger and Thomas Aquinas), and by finding some excellent examples of well-known scholars having trouble keeping their notes organized (Leibniz: "After having done something, I forget it almost entirely within a few months, and rather than searching for it amid a chaos of jottings that I do not have the leisure to arrange and mark with headings I am obliged to do the work all over again" - pp. 87-88), Blair leads her reader into a discussion of the various techniques and tools that came into use as for "note management" (headings, cross-references, indexing, mechanical cabinets, &c.). Beyond even this, though, she examines processes of collaborative note-taking, shared and circulated annotations, and the use of family members or hired amanuenses for the taking or organization of notes.

A full survey of the types of finding devices typical of the genres of reference works considered follows in the third chapter. These include lists of authorities, tables of contents, indexes of various types, branching diagrams, and layout techniques (spacing, color, columns, &c.). This section is well populated with useful images, which do much to complement the text. Blair also examines a genre of particular interest to readers of this review: books about books and bibliographies (including library and sale catalogs, book reviews, reading manuals, &c.), surveying their origins, organization methods, and styles.

Blair's fourth chapter delves more deeply into the compilation process as she seeks to get at the varying motivations of those who created reference books and examines their working methods (these works required a pretty serious commitment in time and resources, she argues), and also forced the compilers to utilize effective management techniques (one of which was to use small paper slips which could be organized as necessary, or to cut and paste - terms we all every day and which have their roots in this tradition - from manuscripts or printed books).

Finally, Blair takes a stab at evaluating the impact of these reference books, noting the patterns of distribution and longevity, the kinds of use they received (somewhat difficult to evaluate, she says, since most authors who used reference books in their own works generally didn't cite them), and the complaints that were leveled against them (these included the fear that the original materials would be lost, that the excerpts in reference books were taken out of context and were often full of errors, and that the use of reference works diminished the quality of learning).

Beginning around 1680, Blair suggests, the massive Latin reference works compiling ancient knowledge began to give way to a different type of work: vernacular reference texts, focused less on the distant past and more on recent or current events. Library catalogs and indexes began to come into their own, so that Samuel Johnson could tell Boswell "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into a subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues and at the backs of books in libraries" (pg. 263). This type of "consultation reading" (which is of course the same thing we do today, in books and online) was helped along by the books Blair considers here.

In as good an epilogue as I've ever read, Blair brings the argument into the present day, offering not only a look at more recent trends in reference, but an optimistic look into the future: "The story of the management of textual information in personal notes and printed reference books, 1500-1700, could be presented as a decline narrative from the heights of great learning to an increasing reliance on shortcuts and substitutes, or alternatively, as a triumphalist account of new methods democratized and made increasingly sophisticated. Similarly, among those reflecting on current and future developments, the doomsayers on the one hand and the info-boosters on the other often seem the loudest voices. ... The decline narrative has been in use for centuries and continues to appeal today, often fueled by general anxieties rather than specific changes. But given the long history of the trope, it seems no more appropriate to our context than it does to the Renaissance of the Middle Ages when it was used so extensively" (p. 267).

Today, Blair maintains (and I agree), "judgment is as central as ever in selecting, assessing, and synthesizing information to create knowledge responsibly" (p. 267). Too much information is nothing new (although the current scale can certainly be fairly compared to the overload experienced by our Renaissance-era predecessors), and we, just as they, will need to work our way through the morass carefully and judiciously.

Too Much to Know is greatly enhanced by the full and very useful notes, as well as the extensive list of works cited (almost sixty pages worth). The whole package is a remarkable accomplishment, a fine read, and certainly one of the most impressive books of 2010.