Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 27, 2007

Being Overwhelmed By the Printed Page

It seems that scholars have been overwhelmed by books for centuries, even before the printing press. Listen to what Vincent Beauvais had to say in the 13th century: “Since the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind, I decided to reduce in one volume in a compendium and in summary order some flowers selected according to my talents from all the authors I was able to read.” Which of us haven’t tried such devices to bring some order out of the havoc we have created with too many fleeting thoughts, piles of half-read books, and scrawled notes that we ‘must’ remember to jot down somewhere permanently?

Another eloquent statement about this condition came from the prolific pen of Rev. Samuel Miller, the Presbyterian pastor and scholar, who wrote the ambitious and still authoritative,A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, (1803). If you can imagine it, Miller’s inspiration for this survey came from a sermon he had preached at the end of the century that summed up the achievements of the 18th century. (How many pastors do you know who would or could sermonize on the full array of intellectual and cultural high-points of the past century?) His intended 4 vol. retrospect had to be pared down to 2 vols. in the press of his duties. Miller would go on to be a founding faculty member of Princeton Seminary. In the last chapter of the second volume, he sums up his observations. Among those of most interest on printing and books:

The last century is pre-eminently entitled to the character of THE AGE OF PRINTING. It is generally known, that this art is but little more than three centuries old. Among the ancients, the difficulty and expense of multiplying copies of works of reputation were so great, that few made the attempt; and the author who wished to submit his compositions to the public, was under the necessity of reciting them at some favourable meeting of the people. The disadvantages attending this state of things were many and great. It repressed and discouraged talents, and rendered the number of readers extremely small. The invention of printing gave a new aspect to literature, and formed one of the most important eras in the history of human affairs. It not only increased the number, and reduced the price of books, but it also furnished the authors with the means of laying the fruits of their labours before the public, in the most prompt and extensive manner. considering this art, moreover, as a great moral and political engine, by which an impression may be made on a large portion of a community at the same time, it assumes a degree of importance highly interesting to the philanthropist, as well as to the scholar. . . .

The last century is entitled to distinction above all others, as THE AGE OF BOOKS; an age in which the spirit of writing, as well as of publication, exceeded all former precedent. Though this is closeley connected with the foregoing particular, it deserves a more distinct and pointed notice. Never, assuredly, did the world abound with such a profusion of various works, or produce such an immense harvest of literary fruits. The publication of books, in all former periods of the history of learning, laboured under many difficulties. Readers were comparatively few; of course writers met with small encouragement of a pecuniary kind to labour for the instruction of the public. Hence, none in preceding centuries became authors, but such as were prompted by benevolence, by literary ambition, or by an enthusiastic love of literature. But the eighteenth century exhibited the business of publication under an aspect entirely new. It presented an increase in the number, both of writers and readers, almost incredible. In this century, for the first time AUTHORSHIP BECAME A TRADE. Multitudes of writers toiled, not for the promotion of science, nor even with a governing view to advance their own reputaiton, but for the market. Swarms of book-makers by profession arose, who inquired, not whether the subjects which they undertook to discuss stood in need of further investigation; or whether they were able to do them more ample justice than their predecessors; but whether more books might not be palmed upon the public, and made a source of emolument to the authors. Hence, there were probably more books published in the eighteenth century, than in the whole time that had before elapsed since the art of printing was discovered; perhaps more than were ever presented to the public, either in manuscript, or from the press, since the creation.

This unprecedented and wonderful multiplication of books, while it has rendered the means of information more easy of access, and more popular, has also served to perplex the mind of the student, to divide his attention, and to distract his powers. Where there are so many books, there will be less deep, original, and patient thinking; and each work will be studied with less attention and care. It may further be observed, that the abridgement, compilations, epitomes, synopses, and selections which are daily pouring from the press in countless numbers, and which make so large a part of modern publications, have a tendency to divert the mind from the treasures of ancient knowledge, and from the volumes of original authors. Thus, the multiplicity of new publications, while they would seem at first view, highly favourable to the acquisition of learning, are found, as will be afterwards more fully shown, hostile to deep and sound erudition. . . We can only imagine his groaning and lamenting at the profusion of words and dearth of intellectual depth that has been aided and abetted by the internet and . . . blogs. For goodness sake, stop reading my blog and get back to some ‘ancient’ author who can dispense ‘sound erudition.’

I was delighted to discover this quotation at the Eighteenth Century Reading Room, a blog of the Mina Rees Library at the City University of NY Graduate Center. They have a treasure trove of other enticing excerpts from 18th century rare primary sources.

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