"Taking Notes" on the Vanity of Human Life and Learning

Any scholar or serious reader worth his or her salt takes notes. Right?

In the latest issue of London Review of Books, historian Keith Thomas (a fellow at All Souls, Oxford) writes about the vagaries of writing and researching history. He basically gives a brief history of note-taking and traces the way the process has changed as technology has changed.

Implying that any scholar or serious reader worth his or her salt takes notes, Thomas also describes one pitfall of a heavy note-taker. He argues that "It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written."

Thomas follows with the "awful warning" of Lord Acton, "whose enormous learning never resulted in the great work the world expected of him." Thomas conveys the assessment of Sir Charles Oman, who described Acton's study after his death in 1902:
There were shelves and shelves of books, many of them with pencilled notes in the margin. ‘There were pigeonholed desks and cabinets with literally thousands of compartments into each of which were sorted little white slips with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (so far as I could see) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift.’ And there were piles of unopened parcels of books, which kept arriving, even after his death. ‘For years apparently he had been endeavouring to keep up with everything that had been written, and to work their results into his vast thesis.’
Oman concluded his description by saying, "I never saw a sight that more impressed on me the vanity of human life and learning."

Of course, Oman wasn't the first to survey the scope of human thinking and the ability of man to accumulate and synthesize all of human wisdom in a pursuit of meaning, and find more emptiness than expected.

The Preacher reached a similar conclusion centuries ago: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (Eccl 12:12).

Keith Thomas, "Diary: Working Methods," in The London Review of Books vol. 32, no. 11 (June 2010): 36-37.
August 9, 2010


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