Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Joy of (Outdated) Facts

Smashing article about the changing nature of facts, chock full with many facts about, um…facts. And some interesting observations as well:

Similarly, books of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.

With hindsight, we can always see through the dubious “authority” of such historical sources. Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages. Since encyclopedias are supposed to be balanced and disinterested, the bias often seems even more naked. Sometimes I wonder if the editors of my 1952 Encyclopaedia Britannica ever regretted their assessment of William Faulkner: “It is naturalism run to seed, for it means nothing. . . . In the hands of Faulkner brute fact leads to little but folly and despair.” Certainly the current editors of the Britannica reckoned some serious updating was required. In the online edition, we now read, “Some critics . . . have found his work extravagantly ­rhetorical and unduly violent, and there have been strong objections, especially late in the 20th century, to the perceived insensitivity of his portrayals of women and black Americans.” Note, however, that instead of a lofty judgment, we’re now given the opinion of these shadowy “some critics.”

Read the whole thing; it ends marvelously.

"The Joy of (Outdated) Facts" (The New York Times)


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