An Open Letters Review Best Book of the Year
The author of The Footnote reflects on scribes, scholars, and the work of publishing during the golden age of the book.
From Francis Bacon to Barack Obama, thinkers and political leaders have denounced humanists as obsessively bookish and allergic to labor. In this celebration of bookmaking in all its messy and intricate detail, renowned historian Anthony Grafton invites us to see the scholars of early modern Europe as diligent workers. Meticulously illuminating the physical and mental labors that fostered the golden age of the book—the compiling of notebooks, copying and correction of texts and proofs, preparation of copy—he shows us how the exertions of scholars shaped influential books, treatises, and forgeries.
Inky Fingers ranges widely, tracing the transformation of humanistic approaches to texts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and examining the simultaneously sustaining and constraining effects of theological polemics on sixteenth-century scholars. Grafton draws new connections between humanistic traditions and intellectual innovations, textual learning and craft knowledge, manuscript and print.
Above all, Grafton makes clear that the nitty-gritty of bookmaking has had a profound impact on the history of ideas—that the life of the mind depends on the work of the hands.
Grafton describes magnificent achievements, storms of controversy, and sometimes the pure devilment of scholars and printers, from the 15th to the early 17th centuries…Captivating and often amusing.
The essays…repopulate the world of high scholarship with participants of all social ranks, dragging the most rarefied ideas down to earth…For all his own intellectual daring, Grafton’s sympathies lie with gruntwork. Originality is upstaged by transmission, inspiration by logistics. Ideas, in this vivid telling, emerge not just from minds but from hands, not to mention the biceps that crank a press or heft a ream of paper.
As usual, Grafton presents largely unfamiliar material—his last essay looks at precursors to Spinoza’s rationalist approach to biblical interpretation—in a clear, even breezy style…Erudite.
Describes the texture of intellectual life from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment…Scholarship is a kind of heroism in Grafton’s account, his nine protagonists’ aching backs and tired eyes evidence of their valiant dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.
Excellent and endlessly readable.
Delightful…Weave[s] together an impressive range of case studies that investigate the labors of scholarly authors between 1500 and 1750.
I can only gesture here to the richness of Grafton’s work…Looking at humanists in their world, Grafton shows once more that despite the ongoing challenges to the humanities, he is a worthy successor to those he writes about and an exemplar for those of us fortunate enough to know him or to read him.
A new book by Grafton is always a cause for celebration.
Grafton’s sweeping erudition and meticulous scholarship are on display in Inky Fingers, which offers us a look over the shoulders of theologians and humanist scholars. His case studies illuminate how ‘traditional’ historical skills—the careful reading of texts, the deciphering of marginalia, and the tracing of arcane references—still hold countless possibilities for new readings and revelations.
Inky Fingers directs our attention to the inky realities of book production and the messiness of everyday life. To erase urban contexts, correspondence networks, financial burdens, and other human factors from the early modern narrative, Grafton shows us, is to distort how new ideas—both famous and obscure—came into being. An excellent and thought-provoking book!
- 392 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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