Information Overload in the 17th Century

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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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.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/08/information-overload-in-the-17th-century/62046/