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Book Review: Worlds Made By Words

Now in Paperback: Worlds Made By Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West

Anthony Grafton
Harvard University Press, 2009

It’s one of the commonplace ironies of the scholarly life that it not only renders scholars unfit for discussing their work but also unfit for discussing anything else. This is perhaps most skillfully satirized in one of the funniest little bravura performances in all of English literature, the Latinate and clause-clogged love letter that George Eliot has arch-scholar Mr. Casaubon send to Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Re-reading that letter – and laughing out loud as we do so – we can’t help but feel some of our schoolyard prejudices confirmed: bookworms are fundamentally both harmless and helpless creatures.

Trying to convince the non-scholarly segment of the population (I can’t speak for other countries, but in the United States, the segment is not large) that there’s any pleasure to be had in reading scholarship is like trying to convince a Unitarian that riotous living can be fun: they’ve seen just enough to know they want no part of it. This is regrettable, since it means most general readers will never know the thrills – admittedly recondite, but there nonetheless – of really well-done scholarship.

Now in paperback from Harvard University Press is Worlds Made By Words by Anthony Grafton, and this is good news; if any living author can convey the interest, the life, and the sheer joy of the scholarly tradition, it’s Grafton. This book is a collection of previously-published essays, manifestos, and polite little screeds on topics ranging from the history of literary scholarship to the scholarship of literary history, with numerous detours into the art and practice of biography, a type of writing Grafton does with marvelous dexterity (his latest book, a literary biography of the non-fictional Casaubon, gives free rein to this skill and is enormously worth your time).

In this new paperback, we learn about the much-maligned Benedictine abbot and bibliophile Johannes Trithemius:

A famous abbot and spiritual counselor, Trithemius spent the last fifteen years of his life dealing with the accusations that he was a magician who employed diabolic help. Even posterity has joined the game and continued degrading the poor man. During most of his lifetime, Trithemius was a high lord of print culture. But like the legendary children who shouted, “Get a horse!” at the first cars that passed down their dusty main streets, the Benedictine abbot and bibliophile has gone down in book history as the technophobe par excellence.

There are entertaining discourses on Kepler, Alberti, Ficino, and Panofsky; there are digressions on Pico della Mirandola (and his fascination with the Kabbala); there’s a deeply engaging portrait of Victorian scholar Mark Pattison that offers both a deep appreciation of his now-forgotten work and a typically stern assessment of the man’s positions and views. Pattison held that “the scholar is greater than his book. The results of his labours is not so many thousands of pages in folio, but himself.” Grafton disagrees:

The deficiencies of this assessment are manifest. It implies that a man without ideas can be a successful interpreter of ancient texts. It accepts that outdated works of scholarship are of merely historical interest. And it does violence to the facts.

But the best parts of Worlds Made By Words are the parts that run counter to stereotype. We might expect Grafton to dig in his heels and resist the waves of mechanization and digitization that are crashing louder and louder against the ivory towers in which he’s spent his entire professional life, but here as well he’s a voice of reason. He assesses the situation in appropriately alarmist tones:

The computer and the Internet have transformed reading more dramatically than anything since the printing press. In great libraries from Stanford to Oxford, pages turn, scanners hum, databases grow – and the world of books, of copyrighted information and repositories of individual copies, trembles.

But he’s alive to its wonders:

Suddenly, you could conduct serious research on the Vatican Library’s collections not only in Rome but also in St. Louis, where the Knights of Columbus assembled a vast corpus of microfilms; or study the Milanese Biblioteca Ambrosiana at Notre Dame. For the first time, you could become an expert bibliographer or paleographer, edit texts or excerpt ancient newspapers and journals, without ever leaving home in California or Kansas. (Scholars, of course, did their best to conceal these facts from the deans who funded their research travel.)

And ultimately he reminds anybody who’ll listen that not only is this not the end of the world, but it all looks oddly familiar:

By counting up and evaluating earlier links, Google steers users to the sources that others have already found helpful. In a sense, the hypermodern search engine resembles nothing more than a teeming mass of old-fashioned footnotes. Just as footnotes tell you where an author went to dug up his or her facts and quotations, so Google tells you where most people have gone before you in order to learn what you want to know.

Although it’s a thing most working professionals in the field tend to forget, the heart of good scholarship is the heart of all good writing: telling good stories. Grafton, praise be, understands this. Five minutes reading Worlds Made By Words will hook any serious reader for the whole ride; it’s highly recommended as an all-purpose pick-me-up for your brain.

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