Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

14 JUNE, 2012

An Unquiet History of Libraries and Navigating Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet


“…texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns…”

Everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” the French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé famously proclaimed.

My mother was formally trained in library science and although she went into computer software instead, her academic bequest always instilled in me a profound respect for these institutions. (From which the New York Public Library benefits with regular donations.) A great library doesn’t just contain knowledge, it kindles knowledge — getting lost in its endless corridors of curiosity, you inevitably find yourself. In Library: An Unquiet History (public library), a fine companion to Books: A Living History, Harvard rare books librarian Matthew Battles traces the survival and destruction of information, from Alexandria to the internet. But besides the fascinating history, Battles paints a loving, layered portrait of the universal library itself, both as a sanctuary of culture and a pragmatic mechanism for knowledge-wielding.

The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and completable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides. The people who shelve the books in [Harvard’s] Widener talk about the library’s breathing — at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of term, the library inhales, and the books fly back. So the library is a body, too, the pages of books pressed together like organs in the darkness.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, ca. 1566

How alluring a library is, with its promise of a blueprint to the totality of the world:

In the stacks of the library … I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe.

But in the very notion of the universal library, with its diverse and seemingly infinite selection of information about the world, lies a dangerous implicit bias:

There’s a reductive danger in this fantasy: for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book — why not into a single word?

Columbia’s Stuart Firestein touches on this in his excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science, suggesting that when a hungry-eyed college student is a handed a mammoth science textbook that makes Darwin’s The Origin of Species look like a pamphlet by comparison, it’s easy for the young mind to assume the book contains all the answers. But science, like all meaningful knowledge, is about the questions and the relationships between facts, not about the answers and the accumulation of facts.

Indeed, the very rate at which a library accumulates information — “The Library of Congress, the world’s largest universal library, each day adds some 7,000 books to the more than 100 million items already standing on its 530 miles of shelves” — makes it all the more important to understand its role not as a repository of facts but as an orienteering system for knowledge. As such, it also serves to de-fetishize books:

In the universal library … books are not treated as precious and crystalline essences … Instead, they are texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns. Like the stars in the sky or the flowers of Linnaeus, they are not to be praised for particular influences or qualities; they must be counted and classified before they may be desired.

In a very urgent sense, the same could of course be said of the internet — which is, in fact, the world’s true “largest universal library” — and the idea that in order for us to access, or desire, what’s technically accessible, we must first know of its existence and its position within our framework of meaningful information. But among the layers of meaning that separate physical books from the web, Battles reminds us, are their embodied histories:

Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.

But that physicality is also the source of navigational weakness. Battles cites the prominent American librarian Edmund Lester Pearson’s 1909 lament about library card catalogs, which remains as relevant today:

Almost any day in any large library their fearful influence may be observed. Dozens of harrowed individuals are seen trying to think whether the name of Thomas De Quincy will be found in the drawer marked De or that labelled Qu. Then they make the choice — always wrong — and are seen, with pain only too apparent on their brows, dashing off to the other drawer…

(This reminded me of another fantastic book, Everything Is Miscellaneous (public library), which examines the advantage bits have over atoms in being better able to harness the multiplicity of meaning implicit to all objects and information, and thus to create better infrastructure for organizing the world. In the case of bits, that Thomas De Quincy book would appear in both the search results under “De” and those under “Qu.”)

Still, the library remains a formidable force of culture. Take, for instance, Harvard’s own Widener Library, where Battles works:

Endowed by the grieving mother of Harry Elkins Widener, a Harvard graduate and bibliophile who went down with the Titanic, Widener is the Great Unsinkable Library. Its ten levels contain fifty-seven miles of shelves, enough to hold some 4.6 million bound volumes, give or take a few. The shelves are great armatures of forged iron that carry the weight of the building; the library quite literally is supported by its books. Peopled not only with librarians, patrons, and professors but also with carpenters, couriers, cooks, accountants, student and part-time book shelvers, webmasters, network administrators, and human resource consultants, it is the city-state at the center of a confederacy of Harvard’s ninety-odd school and departmental collections, totaling some 14 million volumes; taken together, they make up the largest academic library the world has ever known.

Library: An Unquiet History goes on to explore how libraries are built and destroyed, celebrated and vilified — from the decay of the Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s largest and most significant repository of knowledge, to the third-century book burnings of Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi in an effort to erase history, to the 20th-century destruction of libraries in Eastern Europe, but also Julius Cesar’s championing of the library movement in Ancient Rome, the Jewish library in the Vilna ghetto during WWII that served as social glue for a community under attack, the making of the great British Museum library. At its heart, the book is above all a celebration of mankind’s ceaseless quest to quench curiosity and organize knowledge — a quest all the more timely, yet more overwhelming, in an era when our collective “library” has swelled into the world wide web, the largest information system humanity has ever known.

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13 JUNE, 2012

The Origins of Sex: How the First Sexual Revolution Shaped Modern Society


Anatomy of the osmotic balance between public and private, with a side of morality and law.

It must be the season for fascinating books on the history of sex. After last month’s Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, here comes The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (public library) by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala — a formidably researched, absorbing, eloquent account of how, contrary to the modern mythology of the 1960s, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed, seemingly suddenly, some three hundred years earlier, in 17th-century Western Europe. What emerges is a new lens for understanding the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon, by connecting this critical sexual transformation to the intellectual, political, and social forces that shaped the period.

The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time.


The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behavior.

Rembrandt, The Bed (1646): a rare contemporary illustration of a couple making love, composed around the time that the artist began an illicit relationship with his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

These new norms of behavior, Dabhiowala is careful to point out, didn’t affect everyone equally — like other kinds of liberty, they “primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men.” He goes on to explore how urbanization placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under increasing pressure, making London — the largest metropolis in the world at the time, a hub of political power, literature, culture, and innovation — the epicenter of these shifts. Regulating the newly sexually awakened masses, however, was another matter:

The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early middle ages onwards.

Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.


The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him'; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.


The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.

'Nocturnal Feast at the Marquis de Sade's at the End of the Eighteenth Century' by Bettina Smith, c.1920 .

If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God’s] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.

The patriarchal philanthropist: Robert Dingley, merchant and founder of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. On his knee, in the frontispiece to the charity's published Account (1761), rests one of the penitents.

The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed what Dabhoiwala calls “this essentially negative view of sex.” Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the north African coast, who Dabhiowala argues has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:

For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible.

The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights:

In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores… There also became established elaborate rituals of civic punishment for convicted whores, bawds, and adulterers. Serious offenders were taken on a long public procession through the city, dressed in symbolically degrading clothes and accompanied by the raucous clanging of pans and basins. Sometimes they would also be whipped, put in the pillory, have their hair shaved off, or be banished from the city.

Edward Rigby striking an unrepentant pose in 1703. This print was produced just a few months after his release from prison for attempted sodomy.

But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy:

[A]s the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.

James Gillray's lurid pun on the name and the role of Dorothy Jordan, longtime mistress to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV

The Origins of Sex goes on to reverse-engineer how modern ideas about sexual freedom and gender equality coalesced out of the stormy sexual attitudes and behaviors of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century England, exposing a rich new layer of understanding humanity’s most intimate mechanism for relating to self and other.

Thanks, Kirstin

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13 JUNE, 2012

What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes


What an ancient Chinese divination manual reveals about the design and anthropology of great literature.

What makes a classic?

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

This definition comes from historian Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography (public library) — an ambitious and unprecedented history of the iconic ancient spiritual manual that originated in China some 3,000 years ago, and a fine addition to these essential meditations on spirituality. Smith argues that the I Ching, or Yijing, or Book of Changes, belongs with the world’s greatest works of literature, despite its unorthodox form in comparison to other fundamental literature:

And yet [the I Ching] seems so different from other ‘classics’ that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu vVedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.


Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of a sustained narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years — an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture.

A page from a Song Dynasty (960-1279) printed book of the I Ching

The eight trigrams of the I Ching

Smith goes on to explore what was so appealing and timeless about the document, from the histories and myths woven into its non-narrative to its use as a divinatory instrument of political and imperial power to its interpretations over the ages. Despite the spiritual nature of the text itself, however, The “I Ching”: A Biography is a study of form and function, of resonance across space and time in “different and dissimilar lands” — an uncommon lens on the symbolism, design, and anthropology of what makes a literary classic.

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