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Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age [Hardcover]

by Ann M. Blair
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 30, 2010 0300112513 978-0300112511

The flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of “information overload,” yet this experience is not unique to modern times. In fact, says Ann M. Blair in this intriguing book, the invention of the printing press and the ensuing abundance of books provoked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to register complaints very similar to our own. Blair examines methods of information management in ancient and medieval Europe as well as the Islamic world and China, then focuses particular attention on the organization, composition, and reception of Latin reference books in print in early modern Europe. She explores in detail the sophisticated and sometimes idiosyncratic techniques that scholars and readers developed in an era of new technology and exploding information.

Editorial Reviews


"Fascinating. . . . If you like to know things, even in a world in which there is already too much to know, Blair's book is a mini-library in itself."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
(Michael Dirda The Washington Post)

"There has always been 'too much to know.' In this lively and learned book, Ann Blair shows us how early modern Europeans managed to survive—and even to surf—what they saw as tidal waves of information. Her insightful comparisons, careful attention to the survival of traditional methods, and clear vision of the new culture of passionate curiosity that took place in the Renaissance give her work extraordinary range and depth."—Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
(Anthony Grafton)

"Staggering in its scope and impressive in its erudition, Too Much to Know offers the first general account of both the causes and cures of  'information overload' in Western culture, felt with surprising force for many centuries even before the advent of mass media or the internet. Blair's book is a history of reference books and a reference book in its own right. It is a guide to the working methods of past scholars that will greatly enhance the research of present and future ones.”—William Sherman, The University of York
(William Sherman)

“Erudite and excellent…I am inclined to bestow a crown of laurels on Blair…for undertaking such a herculean task.”—Paula Findlen, The Nation
(Paula Findlen The Nation)

"A major work of scholarship. . . . Blair clearly indicates the path that future scholars will need to follow, and she has blazed the first trails very well indeed. . . . Though her epilogue is brief, it raises several questions that all scholars would do well to consider."—Alan Jacobs, Books & Culture: A Christian Review
(Alan Jacobs Books & Culture: A Christian Review)

“[A] landmark study.”—Choice

“Elegantly conceived…[Blair] expresses confidence in the progress of the long struggle to master information overload.”—Jacob Soll, The New Republic
(Jacob Soll The New Republic)

"With a sure hand, Ann Blair has imposed system on an unusually large mass of data. . . . Blair’s approach is original, consistently leading to an innovative synthesis whose strong points are the breadth and concreteness of her presentation."—Angela Nuovo, Renaissance Quarterly
(Angela Nuovo Renaissance Quarterly)

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the History, Geography and Area Studies category.
(Choice Outstanding Academic Title: History, Geography & Area Studies Choice 2012-06-06)

About the Author

Ann M. Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (November 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300112513
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300112511
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #947,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. March 8, 2011
Ann Blair is a historian of staggering erudition, on the one hand, and breath-of-fresh-air common sense, on the other. *Too Much to Know* describes the long and complicated history of things that often don't seem to have a history at all, like information overload, and the effect of new media on how we think, and more. Blair shows how many of the unnerving effects of the internet, for instance, were discussed anxiously in past centuries as well, and attributed to other technological innovations. But her point is not that the impact of today's technologies are just like those of earlier technologies (the view expressed by Abe Simpson: "Why the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached!"). She shows that people in earlier centuries faced challenges that were at once their own - a product of their unique circumstances - and at the same time not entirely unlike those that we face today. After reading this book, you understand a lot more about early modern European culture. And you also understand a bit more about our own culture. Which is why, to my mind, this is as good as historical writing gets. There's great humanity in this book, and wisdom.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Drawbacks August 20, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I waited 6 months for this book to finally be available. I was thrilled when it was delivered; then horrified to read that the author had chosen to leave out all the Latin, Greek and other foreign language footnotes, referring the reader to a website instead! The footnotes are often, to me, the most interesting part of the book, and to have them deleted because some readers may not know Greek or Latin is criminal.

In addition, the author, instead of using an accepted citation style, such as MLA or APA, has chosen to invent her own cryptic citation format.

I am enjoying the book so far. But I am wondering how much I am missing; how much the author chose to leave out. What a shame.

Colby Glass, Professor Emeritus
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By bobdc
I enjoyed this book a lot, learned a great deal, and will be tracking down several of the Works Cited. My one complaint about "Too Much to Know" is about a tremendous irony in it--on the one hand, she writes on page 144 about why printed indexes were "easier to use" than manuscript indexes: "Entries in printed indexes always appeared at the beginning of a new line rather than being run onto the previous line to save space as in some manuscript indexes." On the other hand, this book's second-level index entries run together without carriage returns in dense blocks, making them very difficult to search through. I assume that this is the publisher's fault and not Blair's, but as "finding devices" go this book's index could use some improvement.
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