Jumping Through the Computer Screen

Special Collections Library, University of Michigan
Sixteenth-century cabinet of curiosities belonging to Ferrante Imperato, an apothecary in Naples; from the frontispiece of the 1672 edition of his Historia Naturale

At night, nowadays, we all go on strange and glorious journeys. Just hop through the glowing computer screen, skip from link to link, and you skim across oceans of information. Books and blogs, high-culture magazines and raunchy porn, travel agencies and term paper mills, YouTube and Early English Books Online: all of them blink their lights hopefully as you speed by them, your attention fixed on that elusive, definitive piece of information, the site at the end of the universe that will solve your riddle, finish your puzzle, or answer your question—until a link distracts you, and you drown, for a moment, in facts or images as attractive as they are irrelevant.

That is the way we live now—a new way of life, so it seems, one dominated at every turn by our ways of fin ding information, our mastery of, or our capture by, stores of data that no polymath or imperial librarian, no king or CEO could have summoned up a few decades ago. Yet in some ways, the splendors and miseries of our information-logged condition would have seemed surprisingly familiar when our imperial, continent-spanning nation was a chain of colonies ruled by London.

The seventeenth-century lawyer Francis Daniel Pastorius provides a striking example of someone who, like many of us these days, spent his life trying to keep his head above the surface of a flood of information. His job required him to master the real estate laws of Pennsylvania, where he lived. But his irrepressible curiosity kept pushing him to explore everything from the Greek and Latin classics, Renaissance works on world history and Quaker treatises on religion to the diseases prevalent in his part of the world and the therapies that might be available for them. His mind buzzed with poetry and prose, proverbs and biblical verses, edible legumes and rules for surveying, bibliographies and the incidents of his own life.

Pastorius, a magnificently energetic German who lived from 1651 to 1719, fled sinful Europe for William Penn’s colony in the New World. There he taught, worked as a scribe and court clerk, and served as a justice of the Pennsylvania County Court. And there, he read—big folios and little newssheets, classical poems and modern pamphlets. One ancient piece of literary technology, the commonplace book, enabled him to store everything that impressed him as he read and to find it again when he needed it. Pastorius copied, in his flowing, beautiful handwriting, every passage that struck him, placing them under topical headings and drawing up indexes as well. These notebooks became his most precious possession. On the first page of his largest single manuscript, the Bee-Hive, he urged his two sons to keep his writings “for…

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