Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West

The small support networks and micro-publics that help scholarship flourish intrigue Andreas Hess

April 16, 2009

Anthony Grafton has been very successful in combining intellectual history with the history of ideas. A professor of history at Princeton University, he has a passion for manuscripts and books that clearly goes beyond mere academic interest. His descriptions of works in the early humanist tradition are the result of a true labour of love. He has an impressive number of books and articles to his credit - most prominently Forgers and Critics (1990), The Footnote: A Curious History (1997) and Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (2006) - which are further proof of that; they have received enthusiastic reviews, not only from his immediate peers in intellectual history but also from the wider republic of knowledge.

As if this were not already a stunning achievement, in recent years he has also tried to reach a wider audience by writing for such magazines as The New Yorker and reviewing for The New York Review of Books. In these outlets, Grafton has commented on current issues such as the state of higher education, the fate (and potential future) of classical learning and scholarship, particularly in relation to the way we read, understand and learn now, and how all of this is related to the state of our libraries and our new information systems. What his activities and record demonstrate is that there is not necessarily a contradiction between aiming high in terms of academic scholarship and achievement and getting involved in what seems to be more mundane issues.

Grafton has repeatedly emphasised how important it is that we rediscover and re-evaluate the relationship that exists between what is often solitary work in the ivory tower and the smaller networks and institutions that support such scholarly work. Furthermore, only if we are aware of past scholarly achievements and only if we make a conscious effort of bridge-building and reconstruction will we be able to understand the full story of intellectual human affairs in all its complexity and, occasionally, tragedy.

Worlds Made by Words is a compilation of essays that have, with few exceptions, appeared in academic journals and review magazines. As the author tells us, often they did not start out as such. From extensive footnotes we learn about the occasions and contexts in which most of the writings were conceived: the various learned micro-publics in those obviously very productive environments that scholars inhabit and in which they exchange thoughts and opinions.

It should not come as a surprise that a very similar context is also the subject of most of the essays gathered here: they deal with such classical humanists as Trithemius, that slightly mad German scholar who founded wonderful collections and libraries but then went on to making things up; or Kepler, who communicated with both Protestant friend and Jesuit "foe"; or examples of how the classic tradition has survived, as in the case of Grafton's own teacher, Arnaldo Momigliano, who had his most productive period while working at the Warburg Institute. As Grafton points out, these scholars could flourish only because they were part of a small but highly effective network, which worked "like Masonry, just without the handshakes".

Despite his own warning against nostalgia, he can occasionally appear to be nostalgic when writing about lost worlds, yet it never amounts to a conservative argument in the sense of just preserving the good old times. Rather, 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.

Reading Grafton, we also learn that it is not just all about locations and networks; there is clearly more to the knowledge-transmitting and discovery process than just putting a few heads together under one roof. In many ways his efforts recall the work of the late sociologist Robert K. Merton, in particular his study of unexpected discoveries, which Merton called serendipity patterns. The motive for much of Merton's work had been to find out whether it was possible to create a congenial environment that would bring forth productive patterns of serendipity. While Merton was a sociologist of science and therefore more interested in how scientific discoveries were made, Grafton almost out-Mertons Merton by demonstrating the complexity of the networks under which humanist scholarship flourishes.

Examples of such micro-publics are to be found in this collection's essays on the republic of letters, on Jesuit learning and scholarship and on the contribution of the Jewish tradition to Christian learning, but they also can be found in the chapters that cover modern constellations as, for example, in the discussion of that intellectual and scholarly branch known as the history of ideas, or in discussing the fate of books in the context of rapidly developing information and library technologies.

However, being a scholar or being committed to the republic of knowledge does not automatically guarantee mutual understanding and communication. Those who stand in the scholarly tradition can sometimes talk past each other. In one of the most moving chapters of the book we encounter Grafton's journalist father, on assignment for Look magazine, seeking to interview Hannah Arendt over the debate in the Jewish community triggered by the publication of her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Despite best intentions, the communication between the reporter and the famous author failed, mainly due to pressures from a headline-driven public. Yet it is a redemptive story, too, told by Grafton more than half a century later. Nothing could have illustrated better what Walter Benjamin meant when he spoke of the redemptive power of such narratives.

Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West

By Anthony Grafton
Harvard University Press
432pp, £22.95ISBN
Published 30 April 2009

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