All the Knowledge in the World: The History of the Encyclopedia

From a Wall Street Journal review by Joseph Epstein of the book by Simon Garfield titled “All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia”:

In a YouTube video called “Teens React to Encyclopedias,” one kid comes up with the definition of encyclopedia as “the internet in books”; another says that “it was Google way back in the day. . . it was the worst of times.” Had they known more, these kids might have added that the internet has killed the encyclopedia, turning it into a historical but no longer active form, like verse drama or epic poetry.

The life and death of the encyclopedia is recounted in Simon Garfield’s excellent new book. Mr. Garfield, an Englishman in his early 60s, is lucid, witty, learned and clearly a bibliomaniac, who has also written books on, among other subjects, cartography and typography. In “All the Knowledge in the World,” he has produced a lively threnody to the encyclopedic impulse, or the powerful desire to grasp and encapsulate everything that is known within a single book or set of books.

A lively threnody may seem an oxymoron, but Mr. Garfield both loves encyclopedias and bewails their demise. “This book is as much about the value of considered learning as it is about encyclopedias themselves,” he writes in his introduction. In his closing page, he adds: “This book has not been a history of knowledge, but it has tracked how one aspect of our knowledge has been communicated, circumscribed, and passed on.” That aspect is the printed encyclopedia, R.I.P.

“All the Knowledge in the World” provides a survey of the encyclopedic impulse from its beginning with Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia,” a work not organized alphabetically and without that hallmark of encyclopedias, cross-references. As Mr. Garfield has it, “in one sense it was the Great Library of Alexandria arrayed along a single shelf.”

The author is rightly impressed by the intellectual ambition of the men and women who in their encyclopedias aimed to assemble, as Denis Diderot wrote, “all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the work of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.”

Mr. Garfield devotes several pages to the French Encyclopédie, edited by Diderot with aid on the science side provided by Jean le Rond d’Alembert. A key work of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie carried a political freight sufficient to alert the Vatican of that day to regard it “as a threat to religion and morality,” in Mr. Garfield’s words, “and called for a ban and confiscation.” But at the center of Mr. Garfield’s book is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in Edinburgh in 1768 and brought out continuously in print editions until 2010.

Here I must allow that I was myself an encyclopaedist, diphthong and all, hired in 1965 at age 28 to be a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, where I remained until 1970. A grand revision of the set was planned. A new editor, Sir William Haley, was hired. He had formerly been editor of the Manchester Guardian and the London Times and director-general of the BBC—withal a most impressive man. Highly promising it seemed.

Alas, corporate high-jinks at Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. set in. Mortimer Adler, the editor of the company’s Great Books series, decided he would like radically to revise Britannica. With the aid of Robert Maynard Hutchins, who had great influence upon the company’s publisher, William Benton, Sir William Haley was eased out, Adler slid in, and the great Encyclopaedia Britannica was eventually done in by overorganization and needless complexity.

Adler divided the set into three parts, the Propaedia, the Macropaedia and the Micropaedia. As Mr. Garfield writes of this new, 15th edition of Britannica: “It was a vast and complicated endeavor, thirteen years in the making, and it arrived with the sort of operating instructions that would have floored Steve Wozniak,” the more technical of the co-founders of Apple Computer. The Britannica editors laid a heavy hand on contributors, allowing them little leeway in their contributions. “This may explain,” Mr. Garfield writes, “why this edition reads as if it’s written by a committee, and a committee devoid of character or warmth.” Shortly after I left Britannica, long before the 15th edition was published, Sir William wrote to me: “I am glad that you have left the Britannica. The people there worship different gods than we.”

But the greatest faux pas committed by Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. was to turn down an offer by Bill Gates at Microsoft to put the encyclopedia online. The president of Britannica, a man named Peter Norton, himself a salesman, could not imagine an encyclopedia not sold door-to-door. Mr. Garfield gets this mistaken decision exactly right: “Britannica said no, partly out of pride, one imagines, and certainly because it feared a diminution of profits. The deal seemed too one-sided in Microsoft’s favor. Only with hindsight . . . does this seem like a calamitous decision.”

Encyclopedias have always been a hard sell. Moving a hefty set of books at a big ticket price—toward its last days Britannica sold for $1,500—it could scarcely have been otherwise. Sometimes, as Mr. Garfield notes, the keynote of the sales pitch was aspirational: Imagine having all the world’s knowledge in one convenient bookcase in your own home! Sometimes the appeal was to guilt: How can you deny your children the educational advantage of having an encyclopedia at their fingertips? One of the few sales scandals Mr. Garfield neglects to mention is that, at one point, the World Book company hired teachers to sell their encyclopedia. Parents of children who weren’t doing well in school were told by their teachers that the purchase of a good encyclopedia—World Book, for example—might just make all the difference in their classroom performance.

Today one cannot give old print encyclopedias away. Mr. Garfield, who has a sentimental attachment to them, recounts, at a few places in his book, acquiring various now-defunct print encyclopedias at preposterously low prices, and his wife’s tolerance in allowing him to clutter up their house with them. A full set of Encylopaedia Britannica, 14th edition, sits, alas now seldom used, in a corner of a room in my own apartment.

Mr. Garfield expends a number of pages on Wikipedia and fewer on Google. “Wiki,” he informs us, means “quick” in Hawaiian, and speed of updating is what Wikipedia has over all print encyclopedias. Owing to this speed, the site can record deaths, scandals, election results and just about anything else moments after they occur, while the old print encyclopedias had to await—often for years—the publication of a new edition. Mr. Garfield is excellent on the elaborate mechanics of the editing that goes into Wikipedia articles. I myself turn to the site often to check factual matter—birth and death dates, correct spellings, publications—and used to send it a check for $100 annually, until I discovered that my own Wikipedia entry makes me out, in a heavy-handed bit of academic wokery, to be a misogynist and homophobe, though not yet a racist.

Encyclopedias are part of the history of epistemology—of, that is, the methods, scope and validity of knowledge. One of the few items missing from the impressively comprehensive “All the Knowledge in the World” is the important distinction between information and knowledge. Wikipedia, and Google along with it, specialize in information, which is a long step below knowledge, which is what the older print encyclopedias sought and often attained.

I have before me a volume of 703 pages titled “The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” which includes articles by, among other illustrious names, G.K. Chesterton, Marie Curie, Thomas De Quincey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, William Hazlitt, Julian and Thomas Henry Huxley, T.E. Lawrence, Thomas Malthus, H.L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Donald Tovey, Leon Trotsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alfred North Whitehead.

In their articles for the Britannica these writers conveyed knowledge, while Wikipedia and Google, though helpful in manifold ways, convey information or report on other places where knowledge is available. One hopes, of course, that knowledge might some day allow one, hope against hope, to achieve wisdom, the next and final step up on the epistemological ladder. The larger point, with which I believe Simon Garfield would agree, is play with pixels all you like, true knowledge is still chiefly available in print.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”

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