Master of the Book

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Of making many books there is no end." In the hands of the master bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider, a phenomenon that induced despair in the author of Ecclesiastes was converted into great science and even greater art. 

Steinschneider (1816–1907) lived through the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th.  One of the founders of the academic study of Judaism before there were typewriters, let alone departments of Jewish studies, he took upon himself the gargantuan task of cataloguing the vast numbers of Hebrew and Judaic treasures, in print and manuscript, scattered throughout state, municipal, and university libraries of Europe.

His output was as staggering as it was painstakingly meticulous: fourteen hundred publications, including numerous thick volumes, not counting reviews and a voluminous (and often acerbic) correspondence. His bibliographies brought to light hitherto inaccessible genres and epochs, with countless works of mysticism, philosophy, poetry, history, and science taking their place on the bookshelf alongside the ever-dominant Talmud.  Together with other Jewish scholars of the time, he also played a foundational role in the modern study of Islam.

Memory has not been kind to Steinschneider, partly on account of the charge that he was less interested in living Judaism than, as he is once said to have quipped, in "giving the remains a decent burial."  It is true that he was no nationalist. But the vigor, passion and scholarly aspiration that drove his work was anything but funereal. As a burst of papers and conferences on the centenary of his death resoundingly confirms, his own living legacy continues to inspire today. 

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