Friday, March 4, 2016

‘You Could Look It Up’ by Jack Lynch (book review)

By ALBERTO MANGUEL MARCH 3, 2016, New York Times

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From the days of Copernicus to our own time, scientists have tried to teach us
humility: that our minuscule species is only a speck on a tiny planet in one of
the least important galaxies of the seemingly incommensurable universe. And
yet, with stubborn pride, we see ourselves at the center of everything known
and unknown, decreeing what things are, under what label they might be
permitted to exist and what place they should be allotted on our library
shelves. In the Judeo­-Christian tradition, even God submits to our chutzpah
and brings to the brand­-new Adam all the creatures he has made to see how
Adam would define them. “And whatsoever Adam called every living creature,”
Genesis tells us, “that was the name thereof.” In the beginning was a

Some of the earliest examples of written texts that have come down to us
are proof of our passion for putting things in order. Many of the fragments of
clay unearthed in Sumeria (in modern­-day Iraq and Kuwait), where the
earliest known writing system was invented more than 5,000 years ago, belong
to ancient dictionaries, ledgers and encyclopedic catalogs, from rudimentary
inventories of goats and sheep to detailed chronological tables of the heroic
lives and deeds of kings. Our passion for putting things in order has no end.

Jack Lynch, a professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark, and a
scholar of lexicography, has written a lively and erudite history of that passion.
“I’ll argue,” Lynch says, “ — with only a small bit of exaggeration — that the
reference book is responsible for the spread of empires, the scientific
revolution, the French Revolution and the invention of the computer.” He then
proceeds to unfold a sort of reference book of reference books, one of those
magical volumes of infinite regress that, if it were to attain perfection, would
include itself in its listing, and so on until the end of time. With admirable
modesty, however, Lynch has constrained his work to just over 450 pages, in
which he manages to discuss legal and scientific works like the Code of
Hammurabi of the 18th century B.C.; the lexicographical volumes of what was
then called the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise and Dr. Johnson’s
Dictionary of the English Language; repertories of censored books like the
Catholic Church’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1559; rules of
social conduct like Emily Post’s “Etiquette in Society” of 1922; geographical
atlases including Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, credited with
first imagining continental drift; sprawling encyclopedias from Amarasimha’s
Sanskrit Amarakosha of the fourth century A.D. to Diderot and D’Alembert’s
masterpiece of the Enlightenment, L’Encyclopédie; medical manuals from
Avicenna’s Kitab al­Qanun fi al­tibb of 1025 to the D.S.M. (Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) of 1952, which seems to confirm the
Cheshire cat’s dictum that “we’re all mad here.” Lynch ends, unavoidably, with
Wikipedia, now in its 16th adolescent year.

As Lynch himself explains, “You Could Look It Up” does not aim at being
comprehensive. Explicitly borrowing the system of Plutarch (whose “Parallel
Lives” explored the differences and similarities between great Greeks and their
Roman counterparts) he chooses for each chapter “two more or less
contemporary works on related subjects” and discusses them in their historical
context, seeking to show where the ideas for the works came from and how
they changed our view of the world. Much has necessarily been left out:
almanacs, biographical dictionaries, gazetteers, calendars, bibliographies,
dictionaries of slang, mock reference books (like Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s
Dictionary”), collections of proverbs, thesauruses.

Written in our Age of Information, when the World Wide Web promises
access to everything that we want to know and more, “You Could Look It Up”
has an odd elegiac feel about it. The old hierarchical systems, painfully
imagined, allowed us to research in the tangled undergrowth of facts by
providing logical sequences of numbers, letters or subjects, tidying up
scholarly trawlings into volumes and chapters, creating indexes and tables of
contents to dissect and reassemble the information. But they are quickly
disappearing from our archives. Each technology demands certain tools to
facilitate its use; the electronic technology has dismissed the old hierarchies
and established instead a method in which all facts are equally important and
each one is made present simultaneously with every other fact in a constant
and overwhelming here and now.

When the Library of Alexandria sought to offer its readers every book
found within the circumference of the known world, its librarians realized that
such a mind­-weary richness was useless without effective search tools, and
they invented a system of annotated catalogs (the canon) to help readers find
their way in the maze of words. Even more effective (and necessarily
constraining) tools will have to be devised for our present-­day archives so that,
as efficiently as when we were using an alphabetical index or numerical
catalog, we might be able to find what we are looking for. Until then, “You
Could Look It Up” can serve as a reminder of our enduring and impudent
desire to keep the chaotic universe in some kind of neat and serviceable order.

The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia
By Jack Lynch
Illustrated. 453 pp. Bloomsbury Press. $30.

Alberto Manguel’s most recent book is “Curiosity.” He has been
named the next director of the National Library of the Argentine

A version of this review appears in print on March 6,

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