Information Overload, 16th Century Style

…But there are other scholars who remind us that we are not the first to wrestle with the problem of “information overload”—and there may be lessons for us in how some of our predecessors dealt with this issue. Perhaps the most interesting of those scholars is Ann Blair of Harvard, who is working on what promises to be a fascinating book about information overload in the 16th century—the early days of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation. (You can find a copy of a preliminary article on the subject here: scroll about halfway down or search for the name “Blair.”)

Blair shows that many scholars, starting in the 16th century and continuing for another hundred and fifty years or so, were—how shall I put it?—freaked out by the sudden onslaught of texts. In the 17th century one French scholar cried out, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.” That is, “unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.”

But there was also the most fundamental question of all: how to read. One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay “Of Studies”—concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time.

—Alan Jacobs, “Overloaded: The “information flood” has a longer history than we suppose

via Elliot’s comment on Upper Fort Stewart


5 comments on “Information Overload, 16th Century Style

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    That's great — we always think our problems are brand new, and they rarely are!

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    Elliotalways brings the goods!

  3. Elliot says:

    The goods, eh? That makes me sound like a drug dealer…
    But I'm glad you like it! Books & Culture usually has interesting articles. And Alan Jacobs is nearly always worth reading. You might like his essay collections, such as “A Visit to Vanity Fair.”

  4. Stefanie says:

    Oh, that's a book that promises to be quite interesting. And what a nice twist on that Bacon quote.

  5. wil says:

    This is only tangentially related, but I went to a talk last night given by a professor of banking and finance who has made a career out of studying investor behavior. In one study, he compared investment returns with and without internet access (the premise being that vast amounts of information available via the internet would improve investor knowledge and therefore, improve returns). But he found almost no improvement.
    Apparently the information's out there, but our ability to make good use of it is limited.

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