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Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age Paperback – September 13, 2011

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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)

"Blair's book is the combination of much original research with a new point of view that brings together aspects of the history of learning hitherto considered separately. An excellent and wide-ranging study."—Nancy Siraisi, Hunter College and the Graduate School, City University of New York
(Nancy Siraisi)

Listen here to Ann Blair's interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."

"Too Much to Know is a fascinating account of the traditions, ideals, and practices of early 'information management,' in particular 'the collection and arrangement of textual experts' in the centuries before our own computer age."—Michael Dirda, Book World
(Michael Dirda Book World)

"[a] timely book…Too Much to Know is our pre-history: a saga of human search engines before the digital age….With extensive learning, Blair explains how current concerns over information overload are far from new."—James Delbourgo, Times Higher Education Supplement
(James Delbourgo Times Higher Education Supplement 2011-02-03)

“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)

“Too Much To Know is a book that, by the solidity of its prose and the accurate richness of its scholarship, quietly reveals the industry and ambition that has gone into making it.”—Richard Serjeantson, Times Literary Supplement
(Richard Serjeantson Times Literary Supplement 2011-09-16)

"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)

"Ann Blair has achieved quite a scholarly feat in her pursuit to understand the history of information management as exemplified by the early modern Latin reference books. In her work these books are thoroughly described and analyzed as to their driving forces, variety, tools of text organization, impact, and methods used in producing them, while all this is steeped in a rich analysis of crucial diachronic and synchronic contexts. The discussion on early modern note taking in chapter two [...] should be considered a separate contribution to scholarship on the topic. This is also one of the best illustrated books I have reviewed, in teh sense that almost all of the provided illustrations are quite smoothly connected with the argument, reinforcing it rather than simply illustrating it."—Iordan Avramov, Divinatio: Studia Culturologica Series
(Iordan Avramov Divinatio studia culturologica series 2012-10-01)

About the Author

Ann M. Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300165390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300165395
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #268,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Noah Efron on March 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Colby Glass on 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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By S. Matthews on July 13, 2013
Format: Paperback
I am not sure that the long list of blurbs that appear on the Amazon page for this book do it any favours. To read them you would think (I did) that this is a choice morsel of up-the-intellectual-market poolside reading; i.e. fascinating-in-itself. It isn't. This is a scholarly contribution to the history of reference books and book structuring technology, written in efficient and scholarly, but definitely not sparkling prose. It is never going to be lauded as gripping, and if you do not have an active interest in the minutae of early modern intellectual culture, then you are surely going to come to a juddering halt inside a dozen pages in your attempt to read it. This is not to run the book down - it is just to represent it fairly. If, on the other hand, you do have an active interest in [...etc] then there is worthwhile stuff here to add to your pile; just don't plan on starting the pile here. Certainly, Prof. Blair has done an intimidating amount of work in the archives in preparation - just thinking about it is enough to make me feel like removing my imaginary glasses and rubbing my eyes.

Recommended with those caveats.

P.S., One particular thing that I found surprising - I mention this because I was expecting it from early on - it seemed to be signposted, but it never appeared - is that while Prof. Blair discusses attempts to track the use of reference books in early scholarly work, she is fairly pessimistic about how possible this is. I immediately thought of Jean Seznec's 'the survival of the pagan gods', which has some lovely and to me very striking work on tracking the use of reference books over time. If you plan on reading 'too much to know', then it would be worth taking a look there too (or maybe Prof. Blair thinks Seznec is misguided, but she does not take time out to dismiss him - he is not in the bibliography).
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By bobdc on October 25, 2011
Format: Paperback
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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