Document (#28072)

Author
Mindlin, A.
Title
¬The pursuit of knowledge, from Babel to Google
Source
New York Times. Nr.xxx vom 27.12.2004, S.5
Year
2004
Series
World trends
Content
"MONDION, France - One warm afternoon in the late 19th century, two middle-aged office clerks met an the same bench of the Boulevard Bourdon in Paris and, immediately became the best of friends. Bouvard and Pécuchet (the names Gustave Flaubert gave to his two comic heroes) discovered through their friendship a common purpose: the pursuit of universal knowledge: To achieve this ambitious goal, they attempted to read every thing they could find on every branch of human endeavor and, from their readings, cull the most outstanding facts and ideas. Flaubert's death in 1880 put an end to their enterprise, which was in essence endiess, but not before the two brave explorers had read their way through many learned volumes an agriculture, literature, animal husbandry, medicine, archeology and politics, always with disappointing results. What Flaubert's two Clowns discovered is what we have always known but seldom believed: that the accumulation of knowledge isn't knowledge. The desire to know everything an earth and in heaven is so ancient that one of the earliest accounts of this ambition is already a cautionary-tale. According to the 11th chapter of Genesis, after the Flood, the people of the earth journeyed east, to the land of Shinar, and decided to build a City and a tower that would reach the heavns. According to the Sanhedrin (the council of Jewish elders set up in Jerusalem in the first century), the place rohere the tower once rose never lost its peculiar quality and whoever passes it forgets all he knows. Years ago, I was shown a small hill of rubble outside the walls of Babylon and told that this was all that remained of Babel.
If Babel symbolized our incommensurate ambition, the Library of Alexandria showed how this Ambition might be achieved. Set up by Ptolemy I in the third century B.C., it was meant to hold every book an every imaginable subject. To ensure that no title escaped its vast catalog. a royal decree ordered that any book brought into the City was to be confiscated and copied; only then would the original (sometimes the copy) be returned. A curious document from the second century B.C., the perhaps apocryphal "Letter of Aristeas," recounts the library's origins. To assemble a universal library (says the letter), King Ptolemy wrote "to all the sovereigns and governors an earth" begging them to send to him every kind of book by every kind of author, "poets and prose writers, rhetoricians and sophists, doctors and soothsayers, historians and all others, too." The king's librarians calculated that they required 500.000 scrolls if they were to collect in Alexandria "all the books of all the peoples of the world." But even this (by our standards) modest stock of a half-million books was too much for any reader. The librarians of Alexandria devised a system of annotated catalogs for which they chose works, they deemed especially important, and appended a brief description to each title - one of the earliest "recommended reading" lists. In Alexandria, it became clear that the greater your ambition, the narrower your scope. But our ambition persists recently, the most popular Internet search service. Google, announced that it had concluded agreements with several leading research libraries to make some of their books available online to researchers.
The practical arguments for such a step are irrefutable: quantity, speed, precision, on-demand availability are no doubt important to the scholar: And new technologies need not be exclusionary. The invention of photography did not eliminate painting, it renewed it, and no doubt the screen and the reference books can feed oft Bach other and coexist amicably an the same reader's desk. All we need to do is remember the corollaries tethe arguments in favor of a virtual library:" that reading, in orderto allow reflection, requires slowness, depth and context; that leafing through a material book or roaming through material shelves is an intimate part of the craft; that the omnipresent electronic technology is still fragile and that, as it changes. we keep losing the possibility of retrieving that which was once stored in now outdated containers. We can still read the words an papyrus ashes saved from the charred ruins of Pompeii; we don't know for how lung it will be possible to read a text inscribed in a 2004 CD. This is not a complaint just a reminder. Jorge Luis Berges invented a Bouvard-and-Pécuchet-like charafter who tries to compile a universal encyclopedia so complete that nothing world be excluded from it. In the end, like his French forerunners, he falls. but not entirely. On the evening an which he gives up bis great project. he hires. a horse and buggy and takes a tour of the city. He sees brick walls, ordinary people. houses, a river, a marketplace and feels that somehow all these things are his own work. He realizes that his project was not impossible but merely redundant. The world encyclopedia, the universal library, already exists and is the world itself."
Footnote
Beilage zur Süddeutschen Zeitung. - Mit einer Abbildung: The Library of Alexandria, established in the third century B.C., amassed an imposing collection of 500.000 books.
Theme
Suchmaschinen
Vision
Object
Google

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