As someone who loves to study history, I can easily lose myself in research. Books, searches on the internet, it doesn’t matter. But I often find those moments where I can say: Nothing has changed. It doesn’t matter what people have invented, how the structure of society has changed. People’s fears, their beliefs, the dreams do not change. Last year, I saw Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson speak about his career, and one statement he made resonated with me ever since. “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. This is a dangerous combination. We will be facing a point of crisis in the coming decades.”
Somehow, we get into the habit of thinking it’s all new to us. It isn’t. As the cylons say in the brilliant SyFy remake of Battlestar Galactica, “It’s all happened before, and will all happen again.” While reading the Boston Globe last week, I found an article that I knew would lead to my next posting. In “Information overload, the early years,” Harvard professor of history Ann Blair explores the history of how humans process information, and what is perceived as a tipping point: when is the collected knowledge of humanity too much information? A curmudgeonly Erasmus fumes in the sixteenth century, “Printers fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious, and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness.” He could have just as easily been referring to our own age, Professor Blair shows, if he had the opportunity to read the endless offerings online. One glance at the plethora of blogs, endless hateful postings by trolls on the average news site, and online manifestos, and he’d be just as right today as he was back then.
Gutenberg’s printing press, much like the world wide web, opened the floodgates and gave everyone the ability to make their voice heard. As outlined in Blair’s article, the Gutenberg press, developed in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, quickly spread across Europe. By the late fifteenth century, the price of books dropped 80 percent, they were no longer luxury items, and the first bestsellers were launched. One could argue that without the printing press making this possible, we may never have heard of Vlad the Impaler, the subject of my first novel, The Veiled Mirror. Prince Vlad Dracula (1430–1476) ruled the Romanian territory of Wallachia three times. It was a turbulent time for princes of that region. Endless infighting led to assassinations and coups, and the Ottoman Empire demanded annual tribute and pressed hundreds of young men into its janissary corps. Skirmishes and major battles were constant. Prince Vlad Dracula was one of the few who was able to retain independence for his territory, but he ruled it with an iron fist, and the terrible punishment he inflicted on Turks and his own countrymen alike became legend. But was that kind of rampant brutality all that unusual, considering the time and place? How was it he became particularly infamous? Saxon settlers from German territories in Brasov reported back about his invasions, the mass executions, and they were published with woodcut images. His story was a best-seller in his own time. If Vlad ruled Wallachia today, videos would go viral, and Twitter users would create a hashtag (#vladtepes?!).
Woodcut from 15th-century pamphlet
In my part-time job, I am a teaching assistant for a course taught at Harvard Extension School, The Vampire in Literature and Film, taught by Associate Dean Sue Weaver Schopf. It’s my first time serving as a teaching assistant, and I’ve loved the role. We recently read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, where we discover that the vampire Prince Vlad Dracula endures, and all he wants is a brilliant scholar to serve as his librarian, and catalog his vast collection. The irony was delightful. That Dracula treasured history and had the rarest of books in his collection, and he sought a companion who shared his passion, was a great twist.
Vlad: A Warrior and Scholar?
So how much is too much? I admit to a serious book and information addiction myself. I’ve bought more than I can read, and my own collection continues to grow as I research ideas for novels I plan on writing and buy novels I hope to find time to read one day. My electronic collection takes up who-knows-how-many gigabytes, and I just bought a new computer with a terabyte of space to store even more. It may be overload, but I don’t consider it to be. I may need that information someday, I say as I right-click on a PDF to save it to my hard drive. I love knowing that across campus, Harvard’s library system offers millions of volumes in any topic imaginable. From the daunting stacks at Widener to the rare manuscripts at Houghton Library, it’s all there, cataloged and accessible. Their system became so unwieldy in the past that it has undergone an audit and restructuring, as announced in the Harvard Gazette.
It’s a democracy of information, the more the better. As much as I fret about the tide of ignorance and lies that has come into social discourse and so-called news, there is an equal tide to counter it. The tides have ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. The Dark Ages and the Enlightenment do signify fixed points in history, but not in concept. There have been plenty of each all throughout history. We can’t even begin to imagine what knowledge has been lost, what stories are gone forever, as Mongol hordes destroyed ancient Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, as the Conquistadors destroyed countless Mayan and Aztec codices in Central America , and the Romans burned the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Ancient manuscripts have been used to wrap fish in the Middle Ages, and territorial battles in Europe resulted in monasteries being burned, their scrolls lost forever. We may never have seen Beowulf if it hadn’t been salvaged from a fire.
Of course, now, there are new issues, as had been voiced in the Radcliffe conference I attended this fall. Electronic archives need to be maintained in formats that can be read in the future. Much of my own writing has been rendered useless by floppy disks and a now-defunct ZIP drive. But I treasure my collection, and those I have access to, and those I may never see in my lifetime. Just as long as I don’t wind up like Henry Bemis in the classic episode “Time Enough at Last”of the Twilight Zone, where all his beloved books are before him after a nuclear holocaust, and he breaks his glasses, never to read another word again. (Full episode available on tv.com.) Maybe I should have a duplicate set of glasses made, just in case.