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Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age
Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age
Ann M. Blair
Yale University Press, 2010
416 pp., 48.00

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“I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship (Carl Newell Jackson Lectures)
“I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship (Carl Newell Jackson Lectures)
Joanna Weinberg; Anthony Grafton
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2011
392 pp., 57.39

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Alan Jacobs


Overloaded

The premodern flood of scholarly information.

1.

As people around the world struggle to master ever-rising mountains of data, generated by ever-new technologies, we're seeing a great flourishing of scholarship in the history of knowledge, research, and the book. From Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998) to Matthew Battles' Library: an Unquiet History (2004) to Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance (2010)—to mention just three notable works—major investigations of how our ancestors managed their technologies of knowledge have poured from the presses. This is to be expected, since our immediate concerns will always shape our inquiries into the past. And in this case that tendency is very welcome, though not without irony: we may soon be overwhelmed by books about how people have been overwhelmed by books.

Ann Blair's long-awaited book on information management in the first two centuries of the print era is both a major work of scholarship and, in one small sense, a bit of a disappointment. Faced with her own task of information management—she had to master an extraordinarily large and complex body of material, and to deal with developments that have major consequences for today's intellectual culture—Blair has chosen a relatively modest and circumscribed approach. She does not attempt to account for all the ways that early modern scholars dealt with "information overload"; and she mentions her story's implications for our own technologies of knowledge only in a four-page epilogue. But this modest approach may have been a wise choice: Blair clearly indicates the paths that future scholars will need to follow, and she has blazed the first trails very well indeed.

In his great biography of Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown refers to the saint as a man whose mind was "steeped too long in too few books." By the beginning of the 17th century, almost no one had that problem. Francis Bacon's famous advice in his essay "Of Studies"—"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention"—was meant to help people navigate the great flood of text that Gutenberg's printing press had set free to wash over Europe. As Erasmus exclaimed in 1525, "Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?"

Blair quotes from many early modern scholars who complained bitterly about the difficulties this superfluity of words created. What do I read? How carefully do I read it? What do I do if I don't have time to read it all? And, if I am a learned man and a teacher, how do I best guide others? (Another key question of the period, though one that Blair doesn't take up, is this: How do I know that this book is what it says it is, that it was written by the person it claims as its author? These matters are dealt with wonderfully in Adrian Johns' recent book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates [2010].)

"Information," as Blair uses the term, is distinct from "data (which requires further processing before it can be meaningful) and from knowledge (which implies an individual knower)." The scholar must sift through data, must find some means of organizing it, must put it in a form that is accessible by a human mind seeking knowledge—whether the scholar's own mind or those of his readers and students. To achieve this goal, the scholar must perform "four crucial operations," what Blair calls "the four S's of text management": storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. Blair's exploration of these operations leads her to the two major topics of her book.

The first of those topics is note-taking. Scholars (and readers more generally) have always taken notes, but the more text one has to deal with, the more important it becomes to have reliable and consistent annotative strategies. Blair's fifty-page chapter on this subject, which moves from Pliny and other figures of the ancient world to the 18th century, is a little masterpiece in itself. We learn of those who kept notes on small slips of paper that they hung on hooks, each hook labeled with a topic; we see Isaac Newton dog-earing pages so that the corner of the page pointed at a word of particular importance; we discover that some scholars, perhaps more wealthy than assiduous, hired assistants to take notes for them so that they could assess those notes later, at their leisure. But they all needed to do something to organize their reading, lest they end up sharing the lament of the great Leibnitz: "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." Do not let this happen to you!

Some scholars, having made extensive notes and organized them well, and having identified the most important passages in the magisterial texts of the time, thought it good to find a way to share their learning with others. This is the second chief topic of Too Much to Know: the early modern creation of multiple genres of reference books, first in Latin, then in the vernacular languages. Blair explores everything from the catalogues of early booksellers to dictionaries, bibliographies, and encyclopedias. In the process, and in passing, she demolishes one of the common myths of the Enlightenment, which is that the French philosophes were the first to organize knowledge systematically. Not only were there earlier encyclopedias, but they even employed the same strategy of representing knowledge graphically as a horizontal branching tree of learning.

There is indeed too much to know, but for the seriously industrious the task will seem more invigorating than daunting.

The various reference genres Blair describes were immensely popular because they so directly addressed the problem of information overload, promising to their readers a trove of knowledge pre-stored, pre-sorted, pre-selected, and neatly summarized. But for the same reason they were greatly mistrusted by the learned. As one scholar wrote in the late 17th century, "The dictionaries and [compilations] which we see multiply from day to day are the sure mark of ignorance and baseness for the century." The so-called "learned" of that day were not worthy to be compared, some said, with the giants of the previous century, and the reason for this decline they thought evident: the prevalence of reference books promising shortcuts to scholarly knowledge. As Blair writes, "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." To these narratives she responds, appropriately, I think: "I have tried to steer clear of such extreme positions, although I am conscious of having leaned toward a more optimistic stance because I am confident that new research tools can both enhance our ability to do thoughtful scholarly work and widen access to learning for broader audiences."

And of course, these are vital issues for all of us, thanks to the various internet-based strategies for managing information: "The decline narrative has been in use for centuries and continues to appeal today, often fueled by general anxieties rather than specific changes. But," Blair concludes, "given the long history of the trope, it seems no more appropriate to our context than it does to the Renaissance or the Middle Ages when it was used so extensively."

As I have noted, Blair's approach to this great and endlessly ramifying subject is modest. She tells her story in 268 pages—albeit with over a hundred additional pages of notes and bibliography to guide future scholars to a fuller exploration. And though her epilogue is brief, it raises several questions that all scholars would do well to consider. I have just mentioned one: the link between increasingly sophisticated information-management technologies and narratives of intellectual decline. Let me in conclusion note two others. First, Blair writes, "As a historian, I am concerned about our ability to revisit old sources left in obscurity for a generation or more." Much of the research for Too Much to Know was done in European libraries where the old reference books can be studied and used today, by those who know the relevant languages and can read old handwriting, in almost exactly the same way they were studied and used half a millennium ago. But I would be at something of a loss if I came across an old Zip cartridge, and at a total loss if I had to retrieve something from one of the eight-inch floppy disks I used when I first started writing on computers. Archivists are aware of this problem of obsolete media and are working hard to address it, but Blair is right to be concerned.

Finally, Blair notes that we are even more tempted than our early-modern ancestors were to believe that we can find technological solutions to problems that are actually addressable only by attending to ourselves. "In my line of work, no tools exist to stand in for personal mastery of one's subject matter, informed my contextual understanding …. Even while information storage has been delegated to other media, human memory still plays a crucial role in recalling what to attend to, and when and how. Similarly, judgment is as central as ever in selecting, assessing, and synthesizing information to create knowledge responsibly." Blair's vocabulary here is noteworthy: personal mastery, understanding, memory, judgment. Technologies cannot generate intellectual virtues; we must cultivate those ourselves, just as our ancestors did—or, in some cases, failed to do.

2.

Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) cultivated those virtues better than any of us is likely to do: he was one of the greatest scholars of early modern Europe, though he is little known today. Only his surname is remembered, thanks to George Eliot's borrowing it, in her novel Middlemarch, to adorn the bloodless and ineffectual husband of Dorothea Brooke. But any link between the fictional character and the scholar is unfair to old Isaac, who, far from being bloodless, fathered seventeen children and loved his family deeply. Moreover, as one of the most productive scholars of his era, he was anything but ineffectual, even though he could never meet his own standards of industry. "I arose at five [am]," he wrote in one journal entry; "alas, how late!"

Isaac Casaubon was born in Switzerland to French Huguenot parents, and lived most of his life in France. He was known in his lifetime as one of the greatest scholars of classical Greek, who annotated texts with a linguistic precision and historical sensitivity rare in any age but almost unknown in his. Indeed, Casaubon, who was a convinced Protestant but not especially occupied with the vicious religious disputes that tore apart France in those years, often found himself in trouble with Protestants and Catholics alike for preferring scholarly accuracy to partisan polemics. (Even his last book, a powerful attack on a prominent Catholic scholar named Baronio, is motivated less by ecclesiastical hostility than by a hatred of shoddy scholarship—for instance, Baronio's failure to realize that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek.)

In part because of this disinclination to partisanship, Casaubon moved from city to city seeking peaceful circumstances in which to study—often being separated from his family, to his great grief—and eventually settled in England in 1610. There he was free from the disputes that had bedeviled much of his life, but found himself afflicted by King James, who was always summoning Casaubon away from his study in order to serve as a royal conversation partner. Still, in the midst of all these turmoils, Casaubon managed to produce an enormous body of textual criticism and annotation.

But Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg have discovered that there was something more to Casaubon—something that has remained largely unknown for four hundred years. This "forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship" may be said to begin in the late 19th century, when a bibliographer named Isaac ben Jacob discovered, in the British Library, a heavily annotated copy of a medieval Hebrew grammar. The impressively learned and acute annotations, ben Jacob explained, had been produced by one "Rabbi Yitzchak Kasuban"—a figure unfamiliar to him and indeed to everyone else. It was only a few decades later that another Jewish scholar discovered that the annotator was no rabbi, but rather the Protestant Christian Isaac Casaubon. And it is only now that Grafton and Weinberg have discovered just how deeply and passionately the great Hellenist studied Hebrew—thus their book's title, Casaubon's own exclamation: "I have always loved the Holy Tongue."

This passion of Casaubon's was forgotten—or never noticed in the first place—not because evidence was lacking. Indeed, one way to think of this book is as a kind of intellectual detective story in which the evidence, like that in Poe's story "The Purloined Letter," hides in plain sight. Casaubon's knowledge of and interest in Hebrew is there to be read in his letters, his notebooks, and the notes in the Hebrew books from his library—and all of these sources have survived, most of them in the British Library. It's just that Casaubon's major biographer, the Victorian scholar Mark Pattison, never noticed this strain in his thought, and that neglect has been bequeathed to Pattison's successors.

So Grafton and Weinberg patiently sift through Casaubon's literary remains, devoting to them the same kind of sensitive, humane, and yet analytical philological care that Casaubon devoted to his Greek texts. Their scrutiny reveals a man whose interest in Hebrew was not simply antiquarian, but bore the marks of enduring respect. Casaubon understood Jewish belief and practice in the time of Christ, but was also aware of the ways that Jews of his own time lived and worshipped. He cultivated relationships with Jewish converts to Christianity, and even studied under a non-convert, a Talmudic scholar named Jacob Barnet. (Some of the more interesting of the beautiful plates in this book, selected from Casaubon's books and manuscripts, show his and Barnet's notes on the same page.) Such activities were rare in his time, and if they had been known would have been controversial, but for Casaubon—as for Joseph Scaliger, Casaubon's friend and perhaps the only man of his time more learned than he—they were necessary for intellectual excellence.

Grafton and Weinberg strive to make the case that Casaubon's interest in "the Holy Tongue" and in Jewish devotional practices was something rather more than scholarly—that he was genuinely "open" to Judaism in ways they do not quite define. I take them to mean that Casaubon may have thought of Judaism as a legitimate way of worshipping the God that Jews and Christians alike believe in. This seems possible, though in the context of the period unlikely. What remains clear is the centrality of the Hebrew language, and especially its prayers, not just to Isaac Casaubon's scholarship but also to his Christian devotional life.

One last point needs to be made. At the heart of this book, as I have noted, is the scholarly detective work that Grafton and Weinberg did to unearth Casaubon's previously unnoticed Hebraism. To perform this task, it was necessary that they work in the languages in which Casaubon himself worked, as his thought flowed seamlessly among Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The Latin and Greek here go untranslated; the Hebrew is rarely translated. As a reader with poor Latin and almost no Greek, and nearly complete ignorance of Hebrew, I had some rough sledding from time to time. It was all worth it, but still, caveat lector. (I don't know the Hebrew for that.)

Reading Blair's Too Much to Know and Grafton and Weinberg's account of Casaubon's scholarly accomplishment, I find myself simultaneously excited and enervated. There is indeed too much to know, and more of it every day, but for the seriously industrious the task will seem more invigorating than daunting. However, I must admit that I was at my desk no earlier than 7:45 this morning—alas, how late! How characteristically, inevitably, tragically late. Also, the first half hour I just caught up with Twitter.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's The Age of Anxiety was published earlier this year (Princeton Univ. Press). He is the author most recently of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, just out from Oxford University Press.

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