18th century scholars in the 21st century

While I was kept offline and looking for something to read, I found on my hard disk some volumes of the Bibliotheca Graeca of J. Fabricius.  This is a catalogue of all Greek writers from the beginning up to the renaissance, complete with extensive chunks of their works.  It’s in Latin, of course, but anyone with a bit of effort (and maybe a bit of help from QuickLatin) can make something of it if they try.

This massive and monumental work has long been inaccessible to anyone.  It was published so long ago that it disappeared into rare book rooms 150 years ago.  Once in there, no-one was able to consult it except in small chunks under the hostile gaze of the dragons that such places tend to employ.  Difficult of access, in a language increasingly unused, and of course also out of date, it has vanished from our eyes.

Yet such works have a tremendous value, so long as one can look at a complete set.  If you have a bunch of volumes before you, you learn something about the scope of Greek literature simply by browsing.  Every page adds something.  Reading the contents pages alone will introduce the reader to writers of whom one might never otherwise hear.  Dip in, a little here, a little there.  Read up on someone you know a bit about, and then enjoy the luxury of letting your eyes drift onto the next entry.  Plonk the book down while you grab a beer, and pause to watch Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or whatever.  Pick it up when the dialogue gets boring, in short snatches.  Take a volume to bed, and skim a few pages before turning off the light.  In time no page will be unfamiliar to you, however large the book, and you will acquire a width of knowledge which few today can boast.

This is how to master such a book.  But of course this all depends on whether you have a personal copy, which you can gaily toss into the bedside cabinet.  In a rare books room, such study is impossible.  Google books has done us all a tremendous favour in making volumes available in PDF. 

We need the other volumes too.  But the current PDF’s aren’t really good enough, splendid though they are.  We need PDF’s scanned at a higher resolution, in black and white.  We need images that are clear, at least 400 dpi.  Then we can dash off to lulu.com and print a copy ourselves!  For how else, except in book form, can one play with such a book?

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