A new study of the destruction of knowledge explores how societies depend on fragile archives.
It must be the case that Richard Ovenden’s new work was completed before the world found itself in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, so some chapters in Burning the Books seem eerily prescient. “The idea that information must be diffused and made available to the public if government was to be open to correction also began to be understood,” he writes of 17th-century England, when prominent intellectuals promoted the collection of social statistics to stabilise governmental structures and ensure the prosperity and contentment of the population. He goes on to address the Bills of Mortality for London, documents listing the number of deaths and analysing the causes of them. As the diaries of Samuel Pepys confirm, citizens used that information to manage and modify their own behaviour – most notably in 1665 and 1666, when London was in the grip of the bubonic plague. “This end of the town every day grows very bad of the plague,” Pepys wrote on 29 June, 1665. “The Mortality bill is come to 267, which is about 90 more than the last: and of these, but four in the City – which is a great blessing to us.”
So Pepys, at home in the City precincts of Seething Lane, felt the blessing of relative safety; as perhaps did citizens far from the East Midlands as they saw Leicester go into local lockdown in late June after a spike in coronavirus cases there. Our safety depends not only on our exposure to the virus but on how much we trust the information supplied to us, and how we are able to access that information. In these first decades of the 21st century, we seem beset by a generalised corruption of information, …read more
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