Information Overload in the 17th Century

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Lapham Quarterly's Michelle Legro connects up the New York Times' recent spate of stories on "information overload" with another period in which people struggled with a burgeoning new medium: the 17th century. She makes her point with this stunning quote from Robert Burton's 1621 work The Anatomy of Melancholy:

What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast Chaos and confusion of Books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number--one of the many--I do not deny it...

Harvard historian Ann Blair argued that readers from about 1550 to 1700 struggled with the onslaught of books made possible by the printing press, but that they came up with strategies for coping with the problems. If you like this stuff, you must read Blair's 2003 paper in the Journal of the History of Ideas, a "preliminary survey of some of the methods of reading and note-taking deployed by early modern scholars under the pressures of too many books and too few resources, notably of time, memory or money."


[Don't miss Tim Carmody's thrillride through reading history, Ten Reading Revolutions Before E-Books, either.]
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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