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
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