The Polymath is vulnerable to the same charge that polymaths themselves have faced for centuries, that its breadth outstrips its depth. Mr. Burke does not slow down for stories about his hundreds of characters or explore their ideas in any detail. There just isn’t time, with all the ground he covers. As a reference work, however, it is an admirable mixture of industry and erudition.
In his coda to The Polymath, [Burke] worries that in our Internet age, when at our fingertips we find so much scannable knowledge, we are losing the capacity to dig deep and become truly absorbed in a variety of subjects. His survey of polymaths is a reminder of the importance of doing just that.
Though it would have been better to have focussed on half a dozen genuine cases, exploring where real contributions have been made in different areas, Burke has nevertheless unearthed a fair number of bizarre show-offs, medical cases and eccentrics.
In this survey of polymaths, Burke offers 'an approach to the social and cultural history of knowledge.' ... Burke provides well-rounded pictures of the polymaths, and his precisely observed anecdotes aptly range across disciplines, approaches, and contributions ... An absorbing group portrait and intellectual history.