We don’t think much about institutions. They just seem to “be there.” But they have a history, as Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton show in their important new book Reinventing Knowledge. From Alexandria to the Internet (W.W. Norton, 2008). The book deals specifically with institutions in which knowledge has been created, preserved, and transmitted: the library, the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters, the academic disciplines, and the laboratory. In clear, readable and spicy prose, McNeely and Wolverton show how each of these institutions was created, how they developed, and how they have been molded to novel purposes in successive ages. Reading Reinventing Knowledge is especially enlightening in that it demonstrates an important fact about history: the present is always assimilating and transforming the past. As McNeely and Wolverton show, our beloved “ancient” institutions are actually quite modern in their form and function, if not name. What we call a “university” would be unrecognizable to a “university” student of the 15th century. It turns out that the more things change, the more they change, though we tend to call them by old names. This is a terrific book, a model for the way popular history should be written. It should find a wide audience. Go buy it.
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