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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Book Review: Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)by Ann M. Blair

A Note Taking cabinet from the late Middle Ages.   Several of these were created for scholars to keep track of information- none remain.  The note taking cabinet is a pre-modern example of the intersection of information and "technology."  Here, the technology is the cabinet.
Book Review
Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)
by Ann M. Blair
Yale University Press

  Here are some of the problems with reading academic subjects like history or philosophy:

1.  Much of it is written for specialists, by specialists, and published in journals which are hard to get, even in the internet era.
2.   Published books are likely to lag a year or two behind the current discussion between specialists because it exists outside of the conference/journal specialist circuit.
3.   When those books are published, they are like to be more expensive than a work of fiction because usually they are printed by specialist, academic publishing houses who make fewer books.

 So, identifying the right book in an academic subject is tough- you want something that isn't just for specialist, or of interest to specialist, and on the other hand, you don't want crap. So much non-fiction- I'm thinking of genres like self-help or business tips, is just unadulterated garbage with nary a pretense towards merit.  You want an other with a light touch, one confident enough in the subject matter to write a book for general readers without sacrificing the accuracy inherent in academic non-fiction.

 The best way to judge is the publishing house- for subjects like history or philosophy, for example. Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard, Yale and then the second tier US Publishers- University of California, John Hopkins, Princeton, etc. Commercial publishers can be counted on to publish readable books, but whether they are well written and annotated is unpredictable.

  So, the first thing to note about Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is that is a hit, written by a tenured Professor of History at Harvard University- like right now- as I write this.  The best academic non-fiction writing is a kind of alchemy of knowledge- authors gather a million sources that you will never read and create a compelling 300-500 page book that totally revises your opinion about the subject.  Here, the opinion that she seeks to revise is the truism that a consequence of the information age is to feel overwhelmed by something called "information overload."

  This hypothesis, which is so much a part of conventional wisdom that I doubt you could find anyone to disagree with it if you were trying, is that we are currently overwhelmed by "too much information," typically with a reference to the sheer amount of some information related product- books, television shows, movies.   The idea is that only NOW can we "not keep up."

  This, Blair persuasively argues, is not, and never has been the case. In fact, the idea of "too much information" is as old as the book itself- and actually have been an opinion that came in to existence the same time as WRITING itself.   Blair coins (I think) a term, "info lust" to describe the attitude of certain groups towards the acquisition of knowledge.  Info lust is hardly a modern affliction.  Like the idea of information overload, Blair shows that as soon as there were manuscripts to acquire, people were greedy to possess them.

  In Blair's opinion, the advent of the printing press, while important, did not create any new attitudes towards information, information management and information acquisition, it merely amplified trends that were already present among the audience for printed matter.   Much of the meat of Blair's argument concerns the extensive steps that scholars and priests took in the high middle ages to organize the information that they needed.  This organization- the most common sort is alphabetical- is not something that simply "always was" - rather it was developed by scholars over time.

  A thousand years before people were searching on the internet, they were literally deciding that organizing information by alphabet and subject matter would be useful for readers.  Like all first rate scholars, Blair does not elaborate into what she thinks all this means, except for the major thesis that in no way is "information overload" something specific to the internet era.    I'm sure it's the kind of book that one would refer to over decades.

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