A Great Evil

Ecclesiastes

וְיֹתֵר מֵהֵמָּה, בְּנִי הִזָּהֵר: עֲשׂוֹת סְפָרִים הַרְבֵּה אֵין קֵץ, וְלַהַג הַרְבֵּה יְגִעַת בָּשָׂר.1

Martin Luther

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of lucre and gain. The Bible is now buried under so many commentaries, that the text is nothing regarded. I could wish all my books were buried nine ells deep in the ground, by reason of the ill example they will give, every one seeking to imitate me in writing many books, with the hope of procuring fame. But Christ died not to favour our ambition and vain-glory, but that his name might be glorified.

The aggregation of large libraries tends to divert men’s thoughts from the one great book, the Bible, which ought, day and night, to be in every one’s hand. My object, my hope, in translating the Scriptures, was to check the so prevalent production of new works, and so to direct men’s study and thoughts more closely to the divine Word. Never will the writings of mortal man in any respect equal the sentences inspired by God. We must yield the place of honour to the prophets and the apostles, keeping ourselves prostrate at their feet as we listen to their teaching. I would not have those who read my books, in these stormy times, devote one moment to them which they would otherwise have consecrated to the Bible.2

Edgar Allan Poe

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge, is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information, by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber, in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful matter, peradventure interspersed.3

The Luther and Poe quotes are mentioned in Clay Shirky’s optimistic Does the Internet Make You Smarter? (and in many other places, too, such as David Rothman’s The New Yorker is as wrong about e-libraries as Martin Luther apparently was about paper books); see Nicholas Carr’s Does the Internet Make You Dumber? for a more pessimistic view. See also Carr’s famous earlier essay Is Google Making Us Stupid?, his follow-up “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: sources and notes, and the lengthy and detailed Wikipedia article Is Google Making Us Stupid?.4

Update: Steven Pinker airily dismisses the sorts of concerns that Carr raises; Carr responds that Pinker’s glib optimism is long on rhetoric but short on precision and rigor (h/t: /.).

  1. קוהלת יב:יב – קשר []
  2. The table talk or familiar discourse of Martin Luther, tr. by W. Hazlitt, DCCCCXI, p. 369 – link. []
  3. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 7-8 (Chester Noyes Greenough), CLXXX, pp. 164-165 – link. []
  4. Retrieved on Jun. 11. 2010. []
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One Response to A Great Evil

  1. DF says:

    A most intersting post. I would submit that the proliferation of commentaries is what informs the common conception that previous generations were “smarter” than latter ones. [I realize there is a talmudic dictum directly on point, but want to ignore that for now.] It is because latter generations spend so much time and energy preoccupying themselves with the words of earlier commentaries, while the earlier commentaries focused only, or chiefly, on the primary texts themselves. There’s a limited amount of hours in the day, and there’s no way one can become proficient in tanach (eg) if with even the limited time one devotes to the study of scripture, he is busy “hacking” with the commentaries, rather than the words themselves. The same is true with every sector of study. For example, even if we grant cannoical status to so late a work as the Shulchan Aruch – how is anyone to supposed to learn the whole thing, originally designed to be completed every 30 days, when we have thousands of pages of mishna-berurua minutia appended to just one section of it, and today we have hundreds of pages of more minutia attached to those previous pages of minutia. The forest is completely lost among the growing more crowded by the minute trees. Martin Luther’s quote applies equally here, too.

    Seems to this elementary observation would have led long ago to a change in the way of learning, ie, of focusing only on the primary texts. That way, instead of merely hagiographizing the rishonim, we would actually be emulating them. Bit for many reasons, some complicated and some not, it has never happened.

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