Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic
“A delightful compendium of the kind of facts you immediately want to share with anyone you encounter . . . . Simon Winchester has firmly earned his place in history . . . as a promulgator of knowledge of every variety, perhaps the last of the famous explorers who crisscrossed the now-vanished British Empire and reported what they found to an astonished world.” — New York Times
From the creation of the first encyclopedia to Wikipedia, from ancient museums to modern kindergarten classes—this is award winning writer Simon Winchester’s brilliant and all-encompassing look at how humans acquire, retain, and pass on information and data, and how technology continues to change our lives and our minds.
With the advent of the internet, any topic we want to know about is instantly available with the touch of a smartphone button. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, what is there left for our brains to do? At a time when we seem to be stripping all value from the idea of knowing things—no need for math, no need for map-reading, no need for memorization—are we risking our ability to think? As we empty our minds, will we one day be incapable of thoughtfulness?
Addressing these questions, Simon Winchester explores how humans have attained, stored, and disseminated knowledge. Examining such disciplines as education, journalism, encyclopedia creation, museum curation, photography, and broadcasting, he looks at a whole range of knowledge diffusion—from the cuneiform writings of Babylon to the machine-made genius of artificial intelligence, by way of Gutenberg, Google, and Wikipedia to the huge Victorian assemblage of the Mundanaeum, the collection of everything ever known, currently stored in a damp basement in northern Belgium.
Studded with strange and fascinating details, Knowing What We Know is a deep dive into learning and the human mind. Throughout this fascinating tour, Winchester forces us to ponder what rational humans are becoming. What good is all this knowledge if it leads to lack of thought? What is information without wisdom? Does Rene Descartes’s Cogito, ergo sum—“I think therefore I am,” the foundation for human knowledge widely accepted since the Enlightenment—still hold?
And what will the world be like if no one in it is wise?
Praise for Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic
“A book about transmitting knowledge by someone who has made his name by doing just that in the most erudite and entertaining way possible….a delightful compendium of the kind of facts you immediately want to share with anyone you encounter . . . . Simon Winchester has firmly earned his place in history . . . as a promulgator of knowledge of every variety, perhaps the last of the famous explorers who crisscrossed the now-vanished British Empire and reported what they found to an astonished world . . . .” — New York Times
“With his typical fluency and range, Mr. Winchester . . . traces the intertwined evolution of knowledge, society and the individual, from ancient illiteracy to the wisdom of the hour, artificial intelligence . . . . Winchester is adroit at arranging information in pursuit of knowledge, and he has an eye for the anecdote . . . . Winchester is a knowledge keeper for our times, and he does us all a service by writing it down.” — Wall Street Journal
“[This] genial and much admired author . . . might be appropriately dubbed the One-Man Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge of our own era. Whatever his subject, Winchester leavens deep research and the crisp factual writing of a reporter . . . with an abundance of curious anecdotes, footnotes and digressions. His prose is always clear, but it is also invigorated with pleasingly elegant diction. . . . He is a pleasure to read, or even to listen to, as devotees of his audiobooks can testify. . . . Informative and entertaining throughout.” — Michael Dirda, Washington Post
"Winchester has written about information systems before, as in his 1998 book The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In his robust new compendium, the author examines those systems in far grander scope, from mankind’s earliest attempts at language to the digital worlds we now keep in our pockets. This isn’t just a rollicking look back; Winchester asks what these systems do to our minds, for good and ill." — Los Angeles Times
“[An] ebullient, irrepressible spirit invests this book. It is erudite and sprightly in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has read Winchester’s wonderful histories of the Krakatoa eruption, the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Atlantic (among others).” — Sunday Times (London)
“A testament to [Winchester’s] abiding interest in history, human innovation, and his distinctive ability to share his insatiable curiosity with enthusiastic readers. . . . Winchester’s sheer joy in imparting what he learns is evident on every page. . . . [His] ebullient style and countless irresistible anecdotes and strange facts inspire the reader to knowledge for themselves. . . . Essential reading.” — Booklist, starred review
“…erudite and discursive…. Winchester gathers fascinating and varied examples from throughout history and around the world…. a stimulating cabinet of wonders.” — Publishers Weekly
“Erudite, digressive, and brimming with fascinating information.” — Kirkus Reviews
"The historical episodes recorded in this book are gorgeous in their detail." — Sydney Morning Herald
"The acclaimed Winchester leaps nimbly from cuneiform writings through Gutenberg to Google and Wikipedia as he examines Knowing What We Know—that is, how we acquire, retain, and pass on information—and how technology’s current capability to do those things for us might be threatening our ability to think." — Library Journal
"In classic Winchester style, [the book] combines a panoramic and microscopic view of this imposing subject, one that simultaneously enlightens and stimulates intellectual curiosity . . . . One of the delights of Knowing What We Know is Winchester’s skill at character sketches of figures who almost certainly aren’t familiar to the general reader, but who nonetheless he considers vital contributors to the advancement of human knowledge." — Bookreporter