By ANTHONY GRAFTON [The Daily Princetonian] – What does Europe offer that New Jersey doesn’t? Manuscripts and books, thousands of them, not yet digitized. They’re heaped up in famous libraries like the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and in less famous ones like the Forschungsbibliothek in Gotha, a quiet — OK, a frighteningly silent — town in the former East Germany, mainly known for training tax collectors. Open a folder or turn a page, and suddenly you’re in direct contact with someone who lived and thought four hundred years ago.
Second, new experiences. This summer a colleague and I were invited to organize a research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He’s a classicist, I’m a historian and both of us study, among other things, what happened to Greek and Latin texts as they were copied, interpreted, taught and edited over the centuries. It’s a rich field, part of the core history of Western culture. The MPI gave us the chance to make it richer by inviting scholars who work on non-Western texts to compare the ways in which their classic texts have been studied across the barriers of time, space and language.
The Institute itself is a little alembic for producing white-hot new scholarship. Two floors of offices and seminar rooms sit over a quadrangular basement library with 65,000 books and vast microform and digital resources, open 24 hours a day. What they don’t have, they’ll borrow for you. And they have ways of making you work. The Institute is in Dahlem, which makes Princeton look like the Meatpacking District: no distractions. The management provides a comfortable office with an iMac and a Herman Miller chair and a tiny apartment furnished with Ikea’s Sleep No More series of beds and chairs, crafted from solid stone. After one night, the desk looks great.
It all worked better than my friend and I had hoped. Our colleagues told fascinating scholarly detective stories. We watched as an 18th-century Chinese scholar established a text, character by character; learned why Coptic Christians preferred a Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Arabic to a Christian one; and were astonished as a brilliant, perverse and unidentified medieval scribe emended Suetonius’ “Lives” in more places than any modern classicist…