When I was in high school and needed to look up something I didn’t know, I went to the public library and dared to forage among the pages of the most authoritative reference work available: the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can’t remember which edition it was, but I opened it with the unshaken certainty that experts had distilled vast quantities of useful knowledge for my edification, entry by entry, in those gossamer pages bound sturdily in burgundy leather. How I envied people who owned a set of these weighty tomes! Men and women who knew just the right amount of almost everything, or something about something, they were much as the young Shah of Iran Fat’h Ali declared himself to be in 1797, when he reportedly inaugurated his reign by reading an entire set of the Britannica cover to cover, and then changed his official title to include “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

The third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1788–97), whose eighteen volumes may have enticed the Shah because they were the first to be dedicated to the British monarch George III, was not yet the seemingly exhaustive reference work it would become by the early twentieth century, when leading minds lent their stature and expertise to the twenty-nine-volume set that was sold to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1920, and later peddled by salesmen door to door. Nor was it the contemporary edition we know today—thirty-two volumes filled with approximately 40 million words on almost half a million subjects—which Esquire journalist A.J. Jacobs famously read early in the millennium, an experience he would go on to recount in The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

Jacobs’s desire to master the ultimate reference work seems to have spawned imitators. A few years ago Ammon Shea published a book about his experience reading all twenty volumes of the most recent print version of the Oxford English Dictionary, containing about 59 million words, from “abluvion” (things washed away) to “zyxt” (to see, in Kentish dialect). Shea followed this epic task with a study of the history of the phone book.

Where did the mania for print compendiums begin? The original “British Encyclopedia” was the brainchild of two ambitious Edinburgh publishers, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who employed a printer and aspiring naturalist turned writer, William Smellie, to compose—or as Smellie later reported, compile “with a pair of scissors“—the entries for the first edition of 1768–71. Their goal was to create an indelibly Scottish product to compete with that most learned and controversial manifesto of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert’s twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie (1751–72). Macfarquhar and Bell’s hastily assembled three-volume set was no hardy tree of knowledge but a mere sapling whose fruit was blemished by the errors, “mental, typographical, or accidental,” that were the bane of all encyclopedias and their makers. Nevertheless, its roots sank deep into new territory: as Macfarquhar and Bell explained, theirs was a useful and accessible reference work that could be read by “any man of ordinary parts.” Even the Scottish Enlightenment was not without new-media hype.

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the Encyclopedia Britannica grew in size and stature to become a well-regarded reference work. Its array of volumes, which multiplied rapidly with each subsequent edition, traversed the length and breadth of the British Empire, educating the many rather than the few through an expanding corpus of articles. In 1795 a British military officer named Michael Symes lent his copy of the far more scholarly and comprehensive third edition to King Baba Sheen so that the Burmese ruler could have the entry on glass-making translated in order to benefit from British know-how and ingenuity. A young and impoverished Michael Faraday is said to have read a copy by night while apprenticed to a London bookbinder, an exercise that might have given him the foundation to become one of the great scientists of his generation. In the end, the British encyclopedia outlasted its French counterpart. The Encyclopédie remains an irascibly brilliant artifact of its moment, whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica, continually revised since the 1930s to alleviate complaints about the inevitable obsolescence of content, is a durable time capsule of eighteenth-century design, allowing for the storage and transmission of knowledge across cultures, continents and generations.

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The Encyclopedia Britannica still has an aura about it for those of us over 40, but I suspect that nowadays most of us do not read further than the free version available on the web. Wikipedia and other virtual encyclopedias compete for our attention, absorbing many standard entries that preceded them, if not always with accuracy or rigor. We become ever more dependent on tools such as search engines and aggregators to help us navigate the sprawling and undisciplined encyclopedia of the human mind that the web has become. The current fascination with mastering long, complex and seemingly inexhaustible print works of reference like the OED is undoubtedly tinged with a certain nostalgia for an era in which print compendiums were reliable ports of call for anyone who wanted to look up an idea, check a fact or define a word.

Ann Blair’s erudite and excellent Too Much to Know is a welcome opportunity to step back for a moment from our harried encounter with an information deluge to consider how, in the centuries before and after the invention of the printing press and predating the ages of the modern encyclopedia and the computer, readers coped with the profusion of print information at their fingertips. Blair, a history professor at Harvard and a MacArthur Fellow, takes us on an itinerary that encompasses more than 2,000 years of Western knowledge, with brief excursions into the worlds of Chinese and Arabic encyclopedias. Her goal is to correct the contemporary misperception, born of narcissism and ignorance, that the “information age”—a term dating to 1962—is a new phenomenon. Humans have been accumulating knowledge and finding ways to condense, sort and store it ever since it was understood that knowledge could exceed the limits of memory and oral transmission. The transformation of knowledge into digital bits is the latest episode in the long, ongoing history of aids to memory being given form in media. The term “reference work,” first used in 1889, belongs to the era when James Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary began to emerge in print; but the reading and research methods favored by Murray for the project, such as organizing millions of quotation slips in a warren of 1,029 pigeonholes (which were housed in a garden shed behind Murray’s house), have ancient, medieval and Renaissance antecedents. Blair patiently and lovingly reconstructs the premodern history of print media with detailed accounts of some of the largest, most well published and, let us be honest, rebarbative books ever to appear in print. It is a testimony to her fortitude as a reader and her passion for the subject that she has worked her way through so many editions and variations of these forgotten bestsellers of prior ages. I am inclined to bestow a crown of laurels on Blair—not Jacobs or Shea—for undertaking such a herculean task.

The first lesson to take away from Blair’s study is that every age has its Encyclopedia Britannica, even if few outlive the culture or time of their creation. Consider the ancient bibliographer Callimachus, whose Pinakes contained a summary of the fabled contents of the ancient Library of Alexandria. He merits special recognition as editor in chief of the Hellenistic world’s Encyclopedia Britannica, just as the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder deserves praise for creating a compendium of Roman knowledge filled, so he boasted, with information about 20,000 things worth knowing and outfitted with a rudimentary table of contents to assist readers in finding those facts of greatest interest. By the tenth century enterprising scholars in Byzantium, the Islamic world and China were furiously trying to compile and summarize everything their respective civilizations produced. Entries multiplied rapidly, and bibliographies ballooned to immodest proportions as diligent compilers such as the Baghdad bookseller Ibn al-Nadim did their best to insert in their compendiums a reference to anyone who had ever written something worth remembering.

The scale of such enterprises before the age of the computer, with its ease of access to all sorts of information that we can simply click, copy and paste, confounds the imagination. In the tenth century an encyclopedia of Chinese learning and wisdom contained a thousand chapters. By the fifteenth century the comprehensive encyclopedia created for the Ming emperor by 2,000 court officials had grown to almost 23,000 chapters. Not to be outdone, the Manchu emperor commissioned an even more definitive encyclopedia of Chinese knowledge, the Siku Quanshu, which was compiled between 1773 and 1782. Its sheer bulk puts to rest any Western fantasies of superior information management. Around 3,800 scribes employed their calligrapher’s brushes to create seven copies of the 79,000-chapter tome of tomes. Containing 800 million words, it was far larger than the modern Encyclopedia Britannica and OED combined, making it the definition of a truly unreadable book. One of the few reference works to surpass it in terms of volume is Wikipedia, which now contains around 2 billion words.

Yet it is not simply the dizzying scale, and folly, of the omnium gatherum that engages Blair. She is also interested in explaining how medieval manuscript practices migrated into the world of printed books, and how the expanding market for printed materials allowed the genre of reference work—dictionaries, commentaries, bibliographies, library catalogs, collections of quotations and all manner of books about books—to evolve in order to cater more explicitly to readers’ needs by giving them useful information quickly, efficiently and comprehensively. Her descriptions place us alongside the monks of the medieval scriptorium as they gloss books from beginning to end, and allow us to observe how this culture of note-taking was mechanized, in the century after Gutenberg’s marvelous invention, to create shortcuts to knowledge.

First and foremost was the index. For many of us, the index of a book—like the title page, table of contents, copyright page and bibliography—seems so mundane as to be undeserving of comment. These features are the bones but not the marrow of a book, a necessary but unremarkable structure enveloping its contents. But imagine an era about 500 years ago, when many of the features of the modern book were first being laid out by Renaissance printers, borrowing and improving upon devices they knew from medieval manuscripts. The index was often printed as a stand-alone volume, and was proudly advertised as an enhancement to any reading experience. Among the most ambitious Renaissance encyclopedias was Theodor Zwinger’s vast and vastly erudite Theater of Human Life, published in 1565, which amassed a level of comprehensive knowledge that astounded even Zwinger’s contemporaries, who watched the book expand to 4,500 pages as the Basel physician digested everything he encountered in print. Like other Renaissance encyclopedias, Zwinger’s contained multiple indexes to facilitate looking up every discrete parcel of knowledge through an elaborate sequence of headings and subheadings that outlined, as if in bullet points, the structure of knowledge while also dissecting it thematically. Little wonder that by the early eighteenth century Jonathan Swift would poke fun at contemporaries who displayed a veneer of erudition acquired through “index learning.” Thumb through an index. Find an entry. Dive into a chapter. Surf the Renaissance web and skim fistfuls of Greek and Latin words to sprinkle into daily conversation. Swift’s cynicism about sincere enterprises like Zwinger’s was already a sign of the limited shelf life of this particular kind of encyclopedia.

The most useful books, however, were not only well indexed. A world filled with ever greater numbers of books produced a growing demand for a new kind of book, one that extracted, compiled or condensed useful information found in other books, thus saving the reader time and money. As Blair explains, many readers wanted these digests, and they became the bestsellers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. They were the CliffsNotes of the Renaissance, and they allowed readers to avoid the dreary fate of the reader sitting in front of the book wheel designed by Agostino Ramelli, an Italian military engineer. A device for reading multiple books simultaneously, Ramelli’s book wheel was a sort of miniature Ferris wheel that rotated vertically and was outfitted with self-adjusting shelves, each of which held one book.

Who nowadays has read the Ligurian cleric and rector of schools Domenico Nani Mirabelli’s Polyanthea (1503), an almost half-million word compendium of Greek and Latin learning that combined the contents of the medieval encyclopedic tradition with the best fruits of Renaissance learning? Like the fictional English professor Howard Ringbaum, whose existential dilemma about not having read Hamlet is immortalized in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places, I plead guilty—I have not read this book. But many early modern readers did. They considered the Polyanthea to be a staple of their own education. It began as a series of personal notes on books by a diligent and pious schoolmaster who translated his experience as a reader into a reference work that could reach beyond the classroom through the medium of print. It grew with each edition to accommodate the best examples of new forms of learning, until it became obsolete after the 2.5 million–word edition of 1686. Thanks to Blair’s excellent detective work, we know that the Polyanthea was surely the Encyclopedia Britannica and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of the Renaissance.

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If only Nani Mirabelli had found his way to the town of Bergamo, perched above the Lombard plains, to compare notes with the Augustinian monk and philologist Ambrogio Calepino, the James Murray of the Renaissance, who created the greatest single-author dictionary to predate those by Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. Calepino’s 1502 dictionary was the bestselling reference work of the early modern era, having appeared in more than 200 editions by 1800, as editors and publishers expanded its Latin entries to transform it into the ultimate polyglot experience, a key for all languages rather than just one. As if to prove that dictionaries are far more likely than encyclopedias to enjoy a long shelf life—the history of words unfolds continuously and incrementally, whereas knowledge more reluctantly preserves its past—Calepino has the distinction of being the only author of a reference work to have his name become a noun. (“Calepin” is by now an obsolete word for a dictionary.) And yes, I did look it up in my copy of the compact OED to confirm its usage. It will surprise no one to discover that Calepino was blind by the time he died in 1511.

Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), once declared, with characteristic wit, that the making of dictionaries was “dull work.” He nonetheless produced a dictionary of great verve that others rightfully regarded as a work of literature produced from the reading of literature. Blair offers a detailed account of the process for making these kinds of books, though she does not exhibit the same fascination with character that so preoccupied Simon Winchester, who in The Meaning of Everything stepped inside the lives and minds of the men and women who made the OED. And yet the manias, passions, idiosyncrasies and, yes, capacious erudition and mind-numbing discipline of the makers of knowledge—medieval and Renaissance monks, professors, humanists and printers—shine through every page of Blair’s book. I confess to having become especially curious about the seventeenth-century Jesuit professor Francesco Sacchini, who wrote A Little Book on How to Read With Profit (1614). While not as widely read as Calepino’s dictionary, the Little Book suggests that its author was the Dale Carnegie of the Society of Jesus. As Blair demonstrates throughout her study, knowledge had become a business by the end of the Renaissance. There were many people poised to offer the surest and most efficient path to success—with a book in hand.

Yet it is not only the composition and reading of books that preoccupy Blair but also the ways knowledge is transmuted through a reader’s encounter with them. Once read, what did those millions of printed words become for the reader? The corollary of Ramelli’s sixteenth-century book wheel is the seventeenth-century note closet, a cabinet used to organize the slips of paper covered in jottings that multiplied the more one read. From such projects the note card and the index file would eventually emerge, though not definitively until the age of Melvil Dewey. (I now scribble on the backs of discarded filing cards every time I use my university’s library computers to look up a book.) Blair devotes a large part of her book to telling the history of Renaissance readers who copied memorable passages culled from their reading onto strips of paper and glued these scraps of wisdom into commonplace books, a kind of motley memory book fashioned entirely from notes. Compilers devised ever more efficient methods to extract knowledge: buying multiple copies of books to keep some intact while cutting memorable passages from others, a practice that suggests paper was becoming more readily available; employing wives, children and assistants to accelerate the process of excerpting and cataloging absolutely everything; and creating furniture to house the fruits of this ceaseless industry.

By the end of the eighteenth century, that great age of dictionaries and encyclopedias, the passion for extraction, compilation and condensation had inspired the French satirist Louis-Sébastian Mercier to envision a future in which books had all but vanished. In his utopian novel The Year 2440, published in 1771, he transported readers to a twenty-fifth-century library. It is not an immense gallery lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing innumerable books but rather a modest cabinet containing a handful of volumes. With pride, the librarian explains how all important knowledge had been threshed from the previous millenniums of scholarship, and that the books that were its husks had been burned. Yet as Blair recounts in her elegant study of the past centuries of information management, every project to condense or dispense with books has its corollary in the overwhelming desire to preserve what might otherwise be forgotten. And that is why I can look up “Calepin” in the OED, sharing across the centuries the pleasures of a word that conjures up a world of Latin learning and encyclopedic scholarship we no longer inhabit but still find utterly fascinating.