Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A Solution to the Multitude of Books: Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728) as "The Best Book in the Universe"

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

A Solution to the Multitude of Books: Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728) as "The Best Book in the Universe"

Article excerpt

Since the late twentieth century the caption "information age" has been a dominant characterization of Western and, increasingly, of global culture. These observations have been joined by the complaint that it is difficult for individuals to locate the information they require, to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources, and to distinguish between knowledge and information-- issues exacerbated by the divide between so-called information rich and information poor societies. It is common, in both academic and public spheres, for this set of problems to be ascribed to the impact of electronic information technologies and encapsulated in the term "information explosion."' But this phenomenon is not unprecedented, for as historians of the book and print culture are beginning to demonstrate, some of its essential features were apparent in early modern Europe.2

As Ann Blair has shown, concerns about the increasing number of books were expressed as early as the first century after the invention of printing. By the seventeenth century this issue had attracted the attention of some major figures such as Johann Heinrich Alsted, Jan Amos Comenius, Pierre Bayle, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. When he arrived in London in 1641, Comenius was astonished by the vast number of books on display-far more, he thought, than at the great Frankfurt book fair. In the following year he declared that "bookes are grown so common ... that even common countrey people, and women themselves are familiarly acquainted with them."3 His educational program dictated that the unity of knowledge, once mastered by scholars, must be shared and hence simplified. This required an abbreviation of knowledge, some kind of "magnetic directory" for people lost in a sea of books.4

In 1680 Leibniz spoke of that "horrible mass of books which keeps on growing," so that eventually, he feared, "the disorder will become nearly insurmountable." He also argued that this plethora of books made it more difficult for the Republic of Letters and the academies to communicate any consensus on fundamentals, and so he recommended that royal academies arrange for the "the quintessence of the best books" to be extracted and to have added to them the unrecorded observations of the best experts of each profession.5 More generally, within the wider Republic of Letters extending beyond the learned academies, the problem was not just too many books but differential access to them in various parts of Europe. This is the way Pierre Bayle posed the issue in his Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres (from 1684), and he offered his Dictionnaire as a book to stand in place "of a library to a great many people."6 Thus, for Leibniz and Bayle, both the large number of books and their uneven availability made abridgement imperative. From another perspective Jonathan Swift in 1704 lamented and parodied what he called "Index learning," referring to the growth of epitomes, abridgements, and alphabetical indexes.7 These, he said, were advertised as "methods" for not reading the whole book.

Against this background, by the mid-eighteenth century there were some extreme responses to the rapidly growing number of books. But most commentators acknowledged that printing could save books and hence knowledge from the agents that destroyed manuscripts in the past, such as fire, flood, and the actions of warring armies; there were also calls for aggressive selection, if not culling, of books. Indeed, Edward Gibbon, who lamented the fate of the Library of Alexandria, was able to console himself with the thought that by the seventh century it held many books not worth preserving: "But, if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind."8 Placed in this light, David Hume's famous threat of 1748 to consign all metaphysical or otherwise worthless books to the flames can be interpreted not just as a philosophical preference but also as a means of managing information overload: "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? …

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