Do­ing it by the book

In an age of Wikipedia and Google, en­cy­clo­pe­dias still re­ward our en­dur­ing cu­rios­ity, 250 years af­ter the first Bri­tan­nica, says Oc­tavia Pol­lock

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

On the 250th an­niver­sary of the first En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica, Oc­tavia Pol­lock finds it still has a place in the age of Google

Not for noth­ing was the Age of En­light­en­ment so named. the

En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica was born out of a de­sire to be en­light­ened or, in the case of its cre­ator, Colin Mac­far­quhar, to en­lighten oth­ers. With en­graver An­drew Bell, he formed a So­ci­ety of Gentle­men to ful­fil his grand idea, cit­ing ‘any man of or­di­nary parts’ as the in­tended au­di­ence for the book’s 40 ‘trea­tises’ on the Sciences and Arts. the 127 au­thors in­cluded Amer­i­can Found­ing Fa­ther Ben­jamin Franklin and philoso­pher John Locke, although edi­tor Wil­liam Smel­lie wrote many es­says him­self.

the first edi­tion was pub­lished in 100 parts from 1768 to 1771, bound into three vol­umes at £12 each. Such was their suc­cess, sell­ing 3,000 copies, that a sec­ond edi­tion of 10 vol­umes ap­peared be­tween 1777 and 1784.

Sub­se­quent edi­tions grew in scope and schol­ar­ship and the sev­enth edi­tion em­ployed an in­dex, which, from the eighth in­car­na­tion, ap­peared in a sep­a­rate vol­ume. the lat­ter in­cluded Amer­i­can au­thors, con­firm­ing an in­ter­est from across the At­lantic that had seen the third edi­tion pi­rated; Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Alexan­der Hamil­ton both owned un­of­fi­cial copies. An at­las was first pub­lished in the 10th in­car­na­tion, which, with an editorial of­fice in New York as well as in Lon­don, ac­knowl­edged that it was ‘the prod­uct of the New World as well as the old’.

Pub­lished in 1910 and 1911, the 11th edi­tion em­bod­ies the last golden sum­mer be­fore the First World War. Ded­i­cated to Ed­ward VII and Pres­i­dent Wil­liam Howard taft, it was el­e­gantly writ­ten, with 1,500 men and 200 women con­tribut­ing to its 29 vol­umes.

In the 20th cen­tury, Bri­tan­nia re­tained ex­pert con­trib­u­tors, in­clud­ing Marie Curie (ra­dium), Hou­dini (con­jur­ing), Leon trot­sky (Lenin) and Nancy Mitford (Madame de Pom­padour). By 1929 and the 14th edi­tion, the main of­fice was in the USA. A new three­sec­tion for­mat was used for the 15th ver­sion, from 1974, with 12 Mi­cropae­dia vol­umes of short ar­ti­cles link­ing to longer the­ses in 17 Macropae­dias (fore­shad­ow­ing the click­able on­line link) and a Propae­dia as a guide, plus an­nual Books of the Year.

Sales were strong, partly due to the ubiq­uity of door-to-door sales­men, who earnt such a rep­u­ta­tion for per­sis­tence that a Monty

Python sketch had a seller pre­tend­ing to be a bur­glar so the house­wife would let him in. Most peo­ple over the age of 30 re­mem­ber us­ing an en­cy­clo­pe­dia as a school­child, be­fore the in­ter­net stole the crown.

the 32-vol­ume 15th edi­tion printed in 2010 was the last. From 2012, Bri­tan­nica has been on­line, con­tin­u­ally up­dated, a tacit ac­knowl­edge­ment that its tit­u­lar aim, to be a ‘com­plete cy­cle of learn­ing’, is im­pos­si­ble. ‘the idea is hugely anachro­nis­tic now,’ says Ben Schott, au­thor of four mis­cel­la­nies. ‘the no­tion of some­thing be­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dic is an im­pos­si­ble premise, al­most false.’

Pre­tenders to the throne are le­gion, par­tic­u­larly Wikipedia. they may lack the bat­tery of experts and ed­i­tors that lends Bri­tan­nica its author­ity, but even the orig­i­nal has oc­ca­sion­ally been at fault: in Ford Ma­dox Ford’s

Pa­rade’s End, Christo­pher ti­et­jens spends months tab­u­lat­ing the 11th edi­tion’s er­rors and a 12-year-old boy, Lu­cian Ge­orge, dis­cov­ered mis­takes con­cern­ing Poland in 2005.

the ease of the in­ter­net means the av­er­age writer or stu­dent will sel­dom scan the silkys­mooth leaves of a bound vol­ume, with the ex­cep­tion of those re­search­ing ob­scure his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. ‘We still get re­quests from au­thors look­ing for bi­o­graph­i­cal en­tries,’ notes Hester Vick­ery of John San­doe Books.

How­ever, ‘a work such as Bri­tan­nica is val­ued less as a source of in­for­ma­tion than as a land­mark work in the his­tory of the col­lec­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion,’ says Dono­van Rees of an­ti­quar­ian book deal­ers Bernard Quar­itch. ‘to­day, edi­tions tend to be bought by col­lec­tors.’

A fine set of the sixth edi­tion was sold by Bernard Quar­itch last year for £10,000 and a first edi­tion made $35,000 at Christie’s New York in 2008, far above its es­ti­mate. the first, sixth (with six-vol­ume sup­ple­ment) and 11th edi­tions tend to be the most prized, to­gether with the rare sec­ond edi­tion, of which only 1,500 copies were made.

Col­lec­tors have a ri­val for their bids: in­te­rior de­sign­ers. the beauty of leather-bound vol­umes gives them a new lease of life as wall dress­ings. ‘Hon­estly, 99.9% of the en­cy­clo­pe­dias I sell are for dec­o­ra­tion,’ re­veals Sasha Pok­lewski-koziell of Clas­sic Rare Books. With a full set of the 15th edi­tion tak­ing up more than three yards of shelf space, it’s easy to fill an al­cove or two.

Since its in­cep­tion, Bri­tan­nica and its ilk have spawned dozens of vari­a­tions, from Arthur Mee’s Chil­dren’s En­cy­lopae­dia to Pears’ Cy­clopae­dia, launched by Pears Soap in 1897 as ‘the orig­i­nal Mis­cel­lany’. Many ven­er­a­ble cousins, of­ten cen­tred on one sub­ject and edited by a sin­gle voice, re­tain a fol­low­ing. ‘I pre­fer epony­mous ref­er­ence books that re­veal a mind at work: Ro­get’s Th­e­saurus, Hoyle’s

A Short Trea­tise on a Game of Whist and Brewer’s Dic­tio­nary of Phrase and Fable,’ says Mr Schott. ‘they’re more hon­est. there’s no at­tempt to speak “truth”; even with neu­tral in­ten­tions, they have an editorial voice.’

Mee’s sem­i­nal work, first pub­lished in 1908, is one such. Mee aims to ‘tell the whole sum of hu­man knowl­edge so that a child may un­der­stand’, with the po­ems of ten­nyson, the def­i­ni­tion of courage and the ori­gins of starlight clus­tered un­der head­ings of Won­der, An­i­mal Life, Power and so on. It’s a sys­tem of learn­ing that en­cour­ages ex­plo­ration and, although very much of its time, is still worth dip­ping into to­day, how­ever old you are.

that hu­man cu­rios­ity en­dures is proven by the suc­cess of tv pro­grammes such as QI. ‘Quite in­ter­est­ing’ tit­bits from the QI elves in­clude that Smel­lie was paid just £200 for his ed­i­tor­ship of the first Bri­tan­nica and Bell was only 4½ft tall with a large nose, which he would send up by wear­ing a large false one at par­ties. they also re­vealed an early en­try that would cause out­rage to­day: ‘Woman: the fe­male of Man. See Homo.’

As long as hu­mankind has a thirst for knowl­edge, en­cy­clo­pe­dias and vari­a­tions thereof will have a value and a hand­some vol­ume is a more con­ge­nial com­pan­ion for a wet Sun­day af­ter­noon by the fire than an ipad.

Bri­tan­nica’s tit­u­lar aim, to be a “com­plete cy­cle of learn­ing”, is im­pos­si­ble

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