Grafton, Anthony, Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West.
Anthony Grafton is as much a polymath as the Early Modern scholars who are the focus of his work. This collection of essays, originally published between 1983 and 2008, ranges far and wide, from Leon Battista Alberti and Johannes Trithemius in the fifteenth century to Robert Morss Lovett and Hannah Arendt in the twentieth. A loosely unifying theme is provided by the nature of scholarship and the place of scholars in the intellectual communities of their times. Along the way, Grafton covers such diverse figures as Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, and Mark Pattison, together with such topics as the place of Latin in the modern world, the Jesuits as 'entrepreneurs of the soul' and 'impresarios of learning', and the relationship between Christian and Jewish learning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All these highly specialized subjects are presented with a lightness of touch and sharpness of style that belie Grafton's formidable scholarship and breadth of knowledge.
Some of the essays strike a more personal note. Arnaldo Momigliano was Grafton's own postgraduate supervisor in the 1970s, and one essay looks at the way in which Momigliano's intellectual development was shaped by the scholarly community at the Warburg Institute in London. Grafton's account of his father's attempt to write an article for Look magazine about Hannah Arendt, based on an interview with her at the height of the controversy over her book on Eichmann, is particularly interesting, being based partly on his own childhood memories and partly on the surviving documents. He also reviews the history of the Journal of the History of Ideas, of which he is one of the editors; the result is an illuminating miniature history of the field of the 'history of ideas' over the last fifty years.
The essays that open and close the volume are those of the most general interest. Grafton begins with an overview of the Republic of Letters, that 'lost continent' of an interdisciplinary and international community of scholars which flourished in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He shows how, despite their confessional differences, these scholars managed to work out ways of communicating and exchanging ideas and learning across all fields of knowledge--both in formal societies and through informal contacts. Perhaps the most important means of communication was through letters, thousands of which survive to the present day.
His closing essay, 'Codex in Crisis: the Book Dematerializes', is a thoughtful and judicious consideration of the future of reading and libraries in a scholarly world dominated by Google and its global digitization project. While well aware of the benefits of instantaneous access to millions of electronic books, he sounds several cautionary notes. Google has left the digitization of the imprints of the Early Modern era to the large-scale commercial products of Chadwyck-Healey and Gale, and its digitized books have been plagued by poor metadata and inadequate Optical Character Recognition (OCR). More generally, he thinks, the future will not produce a universal digital library, nor a universal digital archive. While the present (1990 onwards) will be almost entirely accessible in digital form, anything earlier will only be represented by a patchwork of interfaces and databases. We will still need unique physical copies of books, together with the libraries to hold them, and we will still need 'serious' reading.
School of Humanities
The University of Western Australia
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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