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The Praca do Comercio, Lisbon

I am on holiday in Portugal, and, like many tourists, I have an idle curiosity about the city of Lisbon and about the history of the country. Where better to begin than looking at a general history of Portugal? Fortunately, on our holiday we have a little library of books relating to our destination, covering history, literature, and so on.

The Praça do Comercio, the grand square on the waterfront of Lisbon, dates from the 18th century. It was masterminded by Pombal (so the tour guides say). Who was Pombal? When I consult A Concise History of Portugal, by David Birmingham (2003), one of the standard introductory histories, there is of course plenty about the Marquis of Pombal, introduced as “one of the great enlightened despots of the 18th century” (p4). If the book is read in order, we first read that Pombal “fell from grace” in 1777, following which no fewer than 17 pages are dedicated to him (pp 81-98 passim, according to the index). But when did he come to power? We aren’t told. This perhaps minor point is significant because so-called introductory books often assume some prior knowledge; they fail to provide all the relevant introductory material. I looked in vain for some kind of chronology, a list of key dates. Why there should be this assumption is very strange.

It’s not difficult to find the same errors in other guides that assume no prior knowledge; for example, another book I’ve been reading recently, The Library: A Fragile History. It is maddening to read about major events that lack a date. For example, on page 3, we read “In 1556, the University of Oxford, its book collection despoiled, sold off its furniture.” What does this mean? This is the first we hear of the collection being “despoiled” – and that sounds like a more important fact than the furniture being sold. Later, on page 112, we learn more about the event, but not sufficient to understand what happened. Still mystified, I had to look in Wikipedia to find the date the book collection was “despoiled” (which really means “destroyed”). On page 8 it talks about “the complete closure” of English university libraries, of which Oxford was an example, but gives no date. Wikipedia tells me how during the 1550s all English university libraries were closed by order of the Crown.

In both cases, the authors of introductory texts seem to assume that dates, and even events, are already known. We are never told when Pombal was born, when he became first minister, when major events took place; we lack the basic navigation that enables us to place the discussion in context.

Digital forms part of this context in two ways, I think. First, digital enables multiple perspectives simultaneously: one way of tackling so-called introductory texts is to have a chronology alongside on the screen: using multiple windows to make sense of one text. I remember a memorable image by a librarian who surveyed students to learn how they wrote their coursework essays; typically, they described themselves as sitting on a bed surrounded by all the relevant books in a big circle. Such a multiple vision becomes more feasible in a digital environment, when texts can be placed alongside each other and compared in detail.

Secondly, and somewhat paradoxically, digital means selection is more important. Print books have very clear limits to number of pages, number of words, while digital has no such limit. Once the limit of print is removed, there is a tendency to make content longer and longer – as can be seen in some of the extremely lengthy articles in Wikipedia. Often, concision enables us to realise what is important. While chronologies are very helpful, a chronology with hundreds of items loses any impact.

So important is this second point that I would even go so far as to propose just ten dates for any subject: which are the ten most significant dates for, say, the history of Portugal? Of course such drastic concision has drawbacks. It over-simplifies; it suggests a spurious precision about events that may not have a specific date. Nonetheless, the act of making a selection provides the reader with a vital context, against which they can of course subsequently disagree – and hence begin a valuable argument over the subject matter.

The website Five Books, which I wrote about elsewhere, has a similar value. There will of course be many more than five books on any major subject, but asking someone to choose five books and to explain their selection is a very useful introduction. Perhaps the same is true of ten dates. So let’s end with a couple of key dates in Lisbon (and Portugal) history. By all means disagree with them; suggest something better. But the very act of disagreement means an engagement with the context, which leads to greater understanding.

1750         Marquis of Pombal becomes first minister of Portugal

1755         Lisbon earthquake kills some 40,000 inhabitants

1775          Pombal’s redevelopment of Lisbon is completed by the Praca do Commercio, the climax of his redesign.