Wednesday, October 22, 2014

They Don't Make Renaissances Like They Used To

This is the sort of thing I love, and I'm surprised I haven't quoted it here before.  In Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future (Public Affairs Books, 2009), he tells of "Niccolo Perotti, a learned Italian classicist," who in 1471 confided to a friend his concerns about the new language-production technology of printing [xiv-xv]:
My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany.  In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year ... It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be printed because of lack of means or scarcity ... Yet -- oh false and all too human thoughts -- I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped.  Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or better still be erased from all books.  And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.
Ah, the good old days!  Of course Perotte was right: any new technology that makes it easier to copy and disseminate information will increase the absolute numbers (though not, I think, the proportion) of junk that is published.  The difficulty, though, is deciding what is junk and what is treasure.