Now in Paperback: Too Much to Know
Yale University Press, 2010
The title of Harvard history professor Ann Blair’s book Too Much to Know (now in paperback from Yale University Press) will be immediately familiar to all academics and most ordinary folk anywhere in the technological world. The torrent of websites, blogs, vlogs, comments fields, tweeting decks, social media updates … not to mention plain old books … rushes on at a ferocious pace unparalleled in history, leaving even the best-intentioned readers and scholars feeling unable to cope, let alone conquer. The sheer word-pile seems unbeatable.
Blair’s opening contention is that it was ever thus. Throughout her densely-packed but consistently enjoyable study, she has much to say about “the perception of overload” – starting with its uncanny way of always feeling like it’s at crisis proportions. It’s a feeling, Blair quite rightly diagnoses, that’s “often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon,” but it’s the ever-present corollary of any age or society that starts producing more information than one person can comfortably hold in his head.
Polymaths suffer disproportionately. In the course of his long and supernaturally productive writing career, Pliny the Elder amassed an entire library of notes on every subject then known to mankind – the tightly-scripted scrolls filled an entire room and were the most treasured possession of Pliny’s heir. In the generation of his 1306 masterwork Manipulus florum, Thomas of Ireland was so careful to cite his sources that his indices became engorged (an increasingly common medical complaint in the 14th century). Florilegia, collections of sentences and passages arranged by helpful subject headings, abounded whenever writing itself abounded. The advent of the printing press exponentially increased both the number of such books and their lengths, as can be seen in the quick way Erasmus’ Adages grew from a modest handbook to a massive compendium (by 1508 Erasmus had added 257 subject headings to his best-selling snippet collection). Erasmus may have been one of the most successful practitioners of what Blair calls “the S’s of text management” – storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing – but he had lots of company in the endeavor. Some were more modest than he was himself, as Blair points out:
Medieval compilers, especially in florilegia and encyclopedias, typically cultivated a posture of humility and sometimes remained anonymous, highlighting the authority of the authors they excerpted rather than their own. Nonetheless, compilers were never simple copyists but transformed the material as they disseminated it.
Despite the scholarly acumen so wonderfully on display in Too Much To Know, it’s important to stress that this isn’t some bloodless monograph on an abstruse subject: in the 21st century, scholars are far from the only ones who have to deal with those four S’s. There’s a neat sense of fellowship in reading that the pages of medieval manuscripts were manufactured with wide margins, in anticipation of – even invitation of – marginalia (the Comments field of the day, as it were), and Blair has knitted together many such details, creating a very rewarding picture of men (and some women) striving through the centuries to gather that last perfect detail, that elusive telling line. It fosters a winning sense of intellectual company, and Blair is quick to see the ways in which our own computer age is the direct heir to all that brainy work:
Until recently, cutting and pasting was not a metaphor for the process of selecting and reusing a passage but referred quite literally to a physical activity that parlayed the relative cheapness of print into avoiding the labor and inaccuracy of copying.
Too Much To Know is a significant contribution to the scholarship of scholarship itself, but it’s also a fine, engrossing book. And its margins beckon.