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My reaction to this book is pretty mixed. While it was interesting and prompted me to think a lot, I felt it was a slightly shallow treatment of its subject. The introduction proclaimed that it was not a history of the great men and big ideas of Western Intellectual history, but it reads very much that way (spoiler alert: Abelard did it). As it covered a lot of the same ground as books on the history of books and libraries in very similar ways (the movers and shakers rather than the underlying philosophies) I found myself skimming a bit.Stylistically, it is neither a coherently narrative history nor an academic history, lacking many of the signposts of those two styles, and I found it a little hard to follow at times. People and ideas drift in and out within single paragraphs and things I wanted to know more about were not expanded upon in favour of things I did not feel contributed to the theme of the book. The style settles somewhere in between academic and popular, meaning that at times its engaging, at times thought-provoking, but at times the impact of both are lost.What the book succeeds at is giving the reader a sense of an ebb and flow of epistemological paradigms through history, and the contexts that surround these shifts in validity, from oral to written culture, then from the learned individual to the austere institution. It leaves one with the feeling that no intellectual paradigm should be taken for granted, especially given the parallel institutions that have grown up in other civilizations.Finally, however, creative and thought provoking though the model is, I do not buy the authors central tenet, that institutions of knowledge and learning have undergone paradigmatic changes six times in Western history, and that each advance has effectively supplanted its predecessor. The author writes, The library persists, then, as a critical auxiliary to the pursuit of knowledge, but no longer as an institution actively shaping and applying it (p.255). Knowing this institution better than most, I wholeheartedly disagree and wonder how much of the argument was made out of needing to adhere to the model in question.Overall this was an engaging and mostly readable book and I will certainly be referring to it again for research purposes, but I did not feel that it succeeded in what it set out to do, and was ultimately less satisfying as a result.
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