Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The A to Z of knowledge

Our college library is organized on the Library of Congress classification system. The last book in the collection -- ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 -- is Jean-Noel Jeanneney's Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. Jeanneney is president of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. His little book is a cri de couer from someone who thinks Google's big project to scan entire (American) libraries of books into their searchable data base is an assault upon non-English-speaking cultures. What Google calls "universal knowledge," says Jeanneney, is really American knowledge. And further, it is knowledge out of context. A Google search will bring up individual pages of books, he says, but those pages can only have meaning within the context of the whole work. Jeanneney is not a Luddite; he knows that search engines are invaluable tools. But he would like to see Europe and other cultural regimes build their own searchable data bases independent of Google's (or anyone else's) commercial control. He writes: "We should be less interested in the utopian dream of exhaustiveness than in aspiring to the richest, the most intelligent, the best organized, the most accessible of all possible selections."

It occurred to me to see what is the first book in our library's collection. By happy coincidence, it turns out to be -- AC1.G7 v. 1 -- The Great Conversation, Robert Hutchins' thin introductory volume to the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and others at the University of Chicago, undertook with the Britannica company to compile the best of western philosophy, science and literature into fifty-four volumes. To read these books, writes Hutchins in his introduction, is to participate in the "great conversation" of Western history, and to acquire a liberal education. The reception of the project was not altogether enthusiastic. It was variously criticized as arbitrary, elitist, self-serving, and unreadable. One wonders what would have been Monsieur Jeanneney's reaction.

Although I've read a goodly number of them in other editions, I was never enamored of the Great Books. The idea of spending a good chunk of my life reading my way mechanically through that ponderous collection always struck me as bizarre. Better to have a fine library to run wild in, following one's enthusiasms of the moment, discovering one's own "great books" serendipitously, taking the whole of AC1.G7 v. 1 to ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 as a happy hunting ground. Stuffy old Hutchins and Adler can stuff it. I'll give Jeanneney this: Google and the internet are invaluable tools-- I use them all day, every day -- but without access to a library of good old-fashioned books my life would be much diminished.