In this book Anthony Grafton lets us in on one of the great secrets of scholars and intellectuals: although scholars lead solitary lives in order to win independence of mind, they also enjoy the conviviality of sharing a project sustained by common ideals, practices, and institutions. It’s like Masonry, but without the secret handshakes.
Grafton reveals the microdynamics of the scholarly life through a series of essays on institutions and on scholars ranging from early modern polymaths to modern intellectual historians to American thinkers and writers. He takes as his starting point the republic of letters—that loose society of intellectuals that first took shape in the sixteenth century and continued into the eighteenth. Its inhabitants were highly original, individual thinkers and writers. Yet as Grafton shows, they were all formed, in some way, by the very groups and disciplines that they set out to build.
In our noisy, caffeinated world it has never been more challenging to be a scholar. When many of our fellow citizens seem to have forgotten why we collect books in the buildings we call libraries, Grafton’s engaging, erudite essays could be a rallying cry for the revival of the liberal arts.
Grafton challenges readers to consider the pursuit of scholarship in the twenty-first century by reflecting on its practices and practitioners—from the libraries of the Renaissance to the classrooms of the late nineteenth and twentieth-century universities to the virtual spaces where minds and worlds meet today. Part history, part historiography, part autobiography, this is a manifesto for the future of intellectual history by one of its best practitioners.
What comes through here is a deep respect for the achievements of classical scholarship and humanism. This includes the attempt to keep this tradition alive—hard to do in an age that often seems to prefer noise over the silence of an archive or library.
It is exceedingly rare to find in one and the same scholar this love for archival material and the talent to show the world at large why it is interesting and important… The scope of Grafton's volume is vast, and the topics it addresses are uniformly important. He takes his readers on a long journey, from the Republic of Letters to the Babel of the Internet. If it is hard to say whether or not the road leads upward to the light, there is no doubt that we could not ask for anyone wiser to lead us. Like Dante's Virgil, Grafton knows everyone we meet along the way.
Mr. Grafton may be steeped in the past, but he is no antiquarian. He is quick to link submerged traditions with present trends. He regards recent developments in technology, and their effects on libraries and on reading, as both a blessing and a burden. Ideally, new technologies don't displace old ones; they augment them. Cuneiform tablets, papyri, manuscripts, as well as books, remain essential to scholarship and to learning at large, if only because the look and feel of the past can be as important as its content. The larger, more troubling question is: Who will read them in the future? Sometimes Mr. Grafton sounds an elegiac note; he laments 'the dull, provincial scholarship of our own sad time.' He may be right to do so. Nevertheless, he himself represents the best proof that the Republic of Letters is alive and kicking.
Some of the best and most vivid writing in this new book evokes the ambience, patrons and 'smells of dust and noble rot,' in havens ranging from the Bodleian to the old British Library Reading Room, from the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris ('a building that looks like the set from some forgotten dystopian sci-fi film of the 1970s') to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, each with its own unique character and perspective… It is from that traditional vantage point that Grafton, Renaissance scholar extraordinaire, has, for the past forty years or so, dispassionately and indefatigably investigated the intellectual activities of the great early humanists.
Grafton's essays dance nimbly across that gigantic chasm of time separating the Renaissance from Google… Worlds Made by Words amounts to a tour of Renaissance scholarship conducted by someone with a deep understanding of our own moment in the history of reading. It's an enriching combination.
Anthony Grafton, Grand Master of libraries and reading, has written a book-lover's guide to the Republic of Letters. Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Communities in the Modern West traces the literate tradition from the codexes of humanist scholars to what he calls the 'dematerialized' book of today. A superb achievement.
Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West is one of the most intelligent and moving celebrations of the Republic of Letters I have ever read. Part autobiography (we follow Grafton around his favourite library haunts from New York to Warburg), part intellectual history, part manifesto, Worlds Made by Words manages to sing the praises of the old-fashioned book without embarking on a Luddite crusade against Google and all its works.
Anthony Grafton's Worlds Made by Words is a sparkling series of essays in praise of books, with moving and sometimes hilarious reminiscences of a lifetime spent in libraries.
This volume of essays, created over a long span of time, has a central theme: the world and love of learning since circa 1400. Grafton, a scholar fully at home in that world, offers his type of intellectual history that never lets the grand flow of ideas hide the fullness of life, including the lives of the creative scholars. These brilliant but often flawed individuals became shapers of worlds made of words (critically assessed worlds of thought). Although he does not hide practices motivated by corruption and vainglory, Grafton elucidates lovingly the characteristics of their inquiries: erudition, audacious criticism and creativity, insistence on perfect use of language (for a long time, Latin), and a wide range of inquiries well beyond that possible for modern individual scholars. Grafton exhibits many of the admirable qualities in his own research for and writing of these essays. Even his assessment of the digital world's impact on the world of learning Grafton so admires is sharply critical and tinged with sadness, but shows a balanced judgment. Readers get a fascinating introduction to a true world of learning.
- 432 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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