“Before the printing press,” writes Lawrence Summers in the Times’s Education Life section today, “scholars had to memorize ‘The Canterbury Tales’ to have continuing access to them.” That has to be one of the most dunderheaded sentences ever written by a former Harvard president and former Treasury secretary. The bound book was invented more than a thousand years before the printing press came along, and people were writing stuff down – on scrolls, tablets, blocks of wood – long before the book was created. In the 100 or so years between the writing of Chaucer’s masterpiece and the establishment of a printing trade in England, handwritten copies of “The Canterbury Tales” were fairly abundant…..
Interestingly, the version that I look at now says “scholars might have had to memorize ‘The Canterbury Tales’….”
The article has clearly been corrected, but that correction is not noted. Bad New York Times! (One other correction is noted…but you’ll have to read the article to see.)
It’s a funny mistake, but it’s worth pointing it out—and thank you, Rough Type, for doing so—because it’s typical of two characteristics of Summers’ “brilliance.” One, it consists more of the accumulation of facts than any particularly interesting or profound interpretation of them. And two, it is bolstered by Summers’ mode of presentation by certitude, his utter conviction that everything he says is incontestably right.
Even when it isn’t.
By the way, here’s a great Larry Summers story someone told me the other day. This person, an accomplished financier, was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to major in economics. (This was about 30 years ago.)
This guy was pretty intellectually precocious, so he asked the department advisor—who happened to be Larry Summers’ father, Robert Summers—if he could skip intro econ and proceed right to the intermediate level.
Robert Summers replied, “The only student I know who is smart enough to do that is my son, Larry.”
Which, if you think about it, is a very odd thing to say.