Undents, volvelles, and Didymus the Brazen-Gutted: notes on Ann M. Blair’s _Too Much to Know_

Ann Blair, _Too Much To Know_ coverThis is a delightful and very useful book, but only for certain groups of people. You have to either be a bibliophile, or a specialist in early modern history, or a historian of the book to read this with as much utility and pleasure as did I.

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I, for one, chuckled and annotated frequently, especially sitting next to my overstuffed bookshelves.

Too Much To Know (Yale University Press, 2010) is about certain ways people in the early modern period coped with information overload, which seems at first glance to be a strange assertion, given the enormous amount of information we struggle with (or delight in) in our time. But Ann Blair points out that many scholars and observers saw the rise of print as generating a torrent of far too much to read. This 2003 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas offers splendid articles on this topic, including one by Blair.

So how did people proceed? One major focus for Blair is the florilegium, a compilation of the best excerpts from longer works. Like a commonplace book, these works were treasuries of fine writing. They also served authors as quick guides to quotes and topics. Florilegia also helped provide texts when libraries were small and scarce (35). Blair traces their development and history over the century, identifying many different forms, uses, and examples.

Related to this are “large Latin reference books of 1500 to 1700” (264), which worked like florilegia, while adding structures to arrange knowledge, and became weird proto-encyclopedia. And they were big: “A recent study has suggested that up to 1 million collections of sayings and exempla of various kinds were available for purchase through the sixteenth century.” (124) Theodor Zwinger edited/produced/wrote a lot for the Theatrum Humanae Vitae, and Domenico Nani Mirabelli created the Polyanthea, enormous, multi-volume works crammed with excerpts in Latin. A 1631 sequel to the Theatrum appeared “in seven folio volumes totaling 7,400 pages and more than 10 million words, plus an eighth index volume” (132). In fact, a 1583 “600-page quarto” work, Margarita philosophica, called itself the “most perfect cyclopedia of all the disciplines” (169; emphasis added). On the way to Diderot, two centuries ahead.

Theodor Zwinger, Theatrum Humanae Vitae, screenshot from Internet Archive

Blair dives into early modern note-taking (Chapter 2), excavating centuries of very personal, practical scholarly practice.

It’s fascinating to see antecedents for our time, which Blair allows, but doesn’t dwell upon. Zwinger, for example, insists on assembling reference books with what sounds very much like Wikipedia’s neutral point of view (NPOV): “We cannot do everything. The task of the collector is to report in good faith the words and writings of others and to watch and follow the truth of the report.

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” (186). Debates over the virtues and vices of these early modern reference books sound very much like today’s grumbles over Googling or using Wikipedia, with deep echoes to Socrates’ famous denunciation of writing.

There are many entertaining asides and observations throughout Too Much to Know. For instance, I’m inordinately fond of a figure with the splendid name, Didymus the Brazen-Gutted or Book-Forgetting (17).

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I can’t help but smile to see Blair claim to have found a 17th-century origin for the “dog ate my homework” meme (78). I love the idea of a “note closet”, a kind of chamber/machine for storing and displaying many, many notes, and the idea of sharing one among colleagues as a form of social reading and writing (93ff). I’m fascinated that early modern information overload is primarily a European problem, as “in China printing existed for centuries without being considered a cause of abundance” (60). I didn’t know that undents (“Headings… protruding into the margin”) were a thing (155), or that card stock wheels on pages were called volvelles (226).

So why does all of this matter, beyond entertaining book and history nerds like myself? Blair’s work sheds light on a whole series of historical issues, starting with deepening our understanding of the early 18th-century’s ancients versus moderns debate. It shows us that, faced with informational challenges, people can create innovative responses, and how they did so. That lets us see our inherited information management tools – our indexes, marginal notations, chapter headers, encyclopedias, peel-away anatomical illustrations, finding aids – as contingent, flexible, and evolved over time.

Recommended for… well, you know who you are.

(review cross-posted to Goodreads)

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7 Responses to Undents, volvelles, and Didymus the Brazen-Gutted: notes on Ann M. Blair’s _Too Much to Know_

  1. Seems like an extension of David Weinberger’s 2012 “Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room”. In essence, Weinberger describes how the book is the best invention for distilling knowledge to “brain-sized chunks” that are manageable — both within the limitations of physical libraries, and the limitations of the medium itself (unlike hyperlinked information).

    Weinberger offers a historical case for the concept of knowledge and how the nature of contemporary networked information systems undermine the traditional orderly notions of what knowledge is, who has it, and where it dwells.

    One significant difference Weinberger observes between past knowledge and present-day knowledge is that, in the past, it was more expensive to include everything. In the present, it is more expensive to EXclude things. The historical accounts offered above seem to bear that out.



    • Yes, that’s a great link to make. I haven’t seen David for a few years, but I remember him being excited about talking up historical antecedents for today

      Today’s information environment sheds all kinds of light on history!

  2. jennycolvin says:

    Oooh I think I’ll add this to my pile of books I’m consulting to develop my reading class. Surely we will have a discussion on the number of books out there, that feeling you can’t possibly read them all, etc.

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    yes, thank you, we do know who we are. florilegia and commonplace books are also forerunners of blogging

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