Encyclopaedia Britannica: The Final Edition

This essay, written for the Globe and Mail in 1974, is a review of the Fifteenth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica which had just appeared. Like other general encyclopedias, Britannica claimed to be ‘international’ in scope. I wanted to see how well Canada was represented in such reference works.

The Fifteenth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 43 million words in thirty volumes, is the first new edition of the famous reference work in forty-five years. More money — $32 million — has been spent on it than perhaps on any publishing venture in history. The president of Encyclopaedia Britannica has modestly described the new edition as “the greatest single publishing event in the history of mankind.”

There’s probably no one living competent to assess an entire encyclopaedia, and yet it’s obvious that such attempts, however modest, need to be made. As Harvey Einbinder put it ten years ago in his book length critique of the Fourteenth Edition, The Myth of Britannica, “Each week magazines and newspapers devote many pages to the latest novel, biography or bit of political journalism embalmed in hard covers but very little is published about the reference works that are a major investment of the book buying public. The merchandising of these works is a silent business beyond the reach of criticism, and their success often depends on the skill and ingenuity of salesmen rather than the quality of their contents.”

The First Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771 (and named Britannica because it was intended for all English-speaking peoples in the world). The three volumes which made up the First Edition were devoted solely to the arts and sciences; biography and history weren’t added until the ten-volume Second Edition of 1777-1784. The entry on Canada in the First Edition consisted entirely of the following:

CANADA, or New France, an extensive tract of North America, bounded by New Britain and the British colonies on Hudson’s Bay, on the north; by the river of St. Lawrence, the Iroquois, or five Indian nations, the Huron and Illinois Lakes, on the east and south; and by unknown lands, on the west. Its chief town is Quebec.

With its Third Edition, Britannica adopted the practice of inviting leading authorities to contribute to it. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, one finds articles by William Hazlitt on fine art, by Thomas De Quincey on Pope and Shakespeare, by Sir Walter Scott on chivalry, by Robert Malthus on population. What appeared in Encyclopaedia Britannica was frequently the definitive work on the subject. Thomas Young’s 1818 article on Egypt, for example, with its speculations on the Rosetta Stone, is credited with having inaugurated the serious study of Egyptology; the Edinburgh Review described it at the time as “the greatest effort of scholarship and ingenuity of which modern literature can boast.” James Frazer was invited to write articles on totemism and taboo for the Ninth Edition (1889); his research became the basis of The Golden Bough.

The Eleventh Edition (1910-11) is the most famous of all. There is no better place to go to for a sense of what the world at the turn of the century looked like to some of the best minds of the time. Some of the Eleventh Edition’s observations are, of course, now an embarrassment; some of its critical judgements seem terribly naive; and some of its omissions are in themselves revealing. Negroes, we’re told by a distinguished anthropologist, are by nature lazy, intellectually inferior, and preoccupied with sex; nonetheless, he adds, the Negro often exhibits “in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test.” Musicologist Donald Tovey insists that “if all the music of the 17th century were destroyed, not a single concert-goer would miss it.” According to Edmund Gosse, “The influence of Donne upon the literature of England … was … almost wholly malign”; an unbiased reader turning to his poetry, said Gosse would be “repulsed by the intolerably harsh and crabbed versification, by the recondite choice of theme and expression, and by the oddity of the thought.” Herman Melville is dismissed in one brief paragraph.

The Eleventh Edition is to encyclopaedias what the King James Version is to translations of the Bible, or the Longer Oxford is to dictionaries.

Despite this, the Eleventh Edition is to encyclopaedias what the King James Version is to translations of the Bible, or the Longer Oxford is to dictionaries. The set I own is one of my most valued possessions, not because it’s worth a lot or because it’s rare (it isn’t) but for what it symbolizes. It was still possible, when the Eleventh Edition was assembled in the early years of this century, to adequately encompass all of human knowledge in twenty-nine books. The conservative English journal Connoisseur wrote at the time that mastery of the Eleventh Edition would make a man “learned above most of his compeers.” And many — Aldous Huxley, for example — read it cover to cover.

In the years after the Eleventh Edition was published, knowledge expanded so rapidly — especially in the sciences — that in the Supplements which comprised the Twelfth and Thirteenth Editions, and in the new Fourteenth Edition (1929), the humanities were given less and less space. If the Encyclopaedia was to remain approximately the same size while much new information was added, something had to go, and in an increasingly positivist age it was natural that it be those things which couldn’t be precisely measured — literature, philosophy and religion. (History, because it was comparatively factual, was less affected.) Many of those who loved the Eleventh Edition lamented the change. Aldous Huxley wrote, “The old edition was in twenty-eight volumes; the new is in twenty-four. By some curious dispensation, these four additional volumes seem to have contained everything I ever wanted to find out.” Along with the diminished role of the humanities, there was a loss of the ingredient that had made — and still makes — the Eleventh Edition eminently readable — style. By comparison, much of the Fourteenth Edition felt as if it had been written by a committee.

Now we have the Fifteenth Edition. According to Mortimer J. Adler, the person most responsible for it, the Fifteenth Edition is “the first new idea in encyclopaedia making in 200 years.” Its thirty volumes consist of three parts: a ten-volume general index or Micropaedia, containing over 100,000 brief entries with a maximum length of 750 words; a nineteen-volume Macropaedia containing 4200 in-depth articles, the longest of which (Visual Arts, Western) runs 240 pages; and a one-volume Propaedia, Adler’s latest attempt at systematizing all knowledge. (Encyclopaedists since Diderot have regarded this as the ultimate intellectual problem.) Adler believes not only that he has solved the problem, but that his solution “is capacious enough to accommodate all the explosive expansions and alterations in human knowledge that are likely to occur in the next 50-100 years.”

The real test of an encyclopaedia, of course, is using it in one’s day-to-day work, and that’s how I’ ve tried to evaluate this one. Over the past couple of months I’ve made extensive use of the Fifteenth Edition with particular emphasis on its treatment of things Canadian. It’s an area about which I know a little, and it seemed a fair test of the encyclopaedia’s claim to comprehensiveness. During that time I’ ve found the Propaedia of no value whatever. My reasons are not unlike those expressed by Dwight Macdonald twenty years ago in a discussion of Syntopicon, Adler’s attempt to organize the 102 greatest ideas of all time: “… an idea,” wrote Madconald, “is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes never the same for any two people … every man makes his own Syntopicon … and this one is Dr. Adler’s, not mine or yours.”

This Britannica, I was promised, was written so that an intelligent layman could gain at least an elementary understanding of most subject areas. Because I’m rather thick when it comes to math and science, I hoped that now, finally, I would learn something of these things. And I’ve tried. But I’ve come away from almost all such articles as ignorant as I came to them. They’re too specialized for me.

Part of the trouble, not just with the articles on math and science, but in general, is the style. “Adler’s brain,” boasts a piece of promotional literature, “works like a computer programmed to translate thought into outline.” And the encyclopaedia that Adler fathered frequently reads as if it had been written by a computer, or at least by humanoids. That’s not so important in the Micropaedia, to which one turns for quick information and for references to the Macropaedia. But compared to the prose of the Eleventh Edition, the prose of most of the longer essays I’ve read in the Fifteenth Edition is agonizingly tedious. The reason for this, I suspect, is contained in Britannica’s description of how the work was organized. “In a drastic departure from past Britannica practice, each projected article … before writing or even commissioning [was] outlined as to its content.” That strikes me as comparable to handing a paint-by-number set to an artist. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many authorities refused to participate at all, and that 200 of those who originally agreed to take part eventually withdrew their manuscripts.

And yet, among the articles I’ve read, I’ve also found some brilliant (and predictable) exceptions: Arthur Koestler’s article on “Humour and Wit,” for example, George Woodcock’s on “Anarchism”, and parts of Anthony Burgess’s on “The Novel”. (When Burgess talks about the general characteristics of the novel, or about its social and economic aspects, he’s excellent. But he is often quite ignorant of specific novels and developments. His comments on French-Canadian fiction are at least fifteen years out of date. “The somewhat provincial character of French-Canadian life,” he writes, “dominated by the Church and by outmoded notions of morality, has not been conducive either to fictional candour or to formal experiment, and metropolitan France is unimpressed for the most part, by the literature of the separated brethren.”)

Another promotional blurb claims that the Fifteenth Edition “is far and away the most global in scope of any encyclopaedia ever published in English…. It is probably the only encyclopaedia ever published anywhere that was created from a world point of view, by the worldwide community of scholars, for a worldwide audience of laymen.” Sounds good. But in fact about half “the worldwide community of scholars” contributing to Britannica is American; another quarter is British. And I’m glad I’m not a member of the “worldwide audience of laymen” approaching the Fifteenth Edition for a sense of what’s happening in the arts in Canada. Anthony Burgess’s comments on French-Canadian fiction are, unfortunately, not atypical of the new encyclopaedia’s treatment of Canada’s cultural life.

The general section on Canadian culture was written by a geographer from the University of Western Ontario, Norman L. Nicholson. Neither his credentials nor his article makes clear why he was asked to do so. Consider his opening sentence: “The development of the arts in Canada today reflects a geographical and cultural pattern as well as the changes that have come to a rapidly growing and rapidly urbanizing country.” Huh? Of Canadian poetry, Nicholson writes, “John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields (1919) was the only important Canadian verse related to the 1914-18 conflict, but since then E.J. Pratt, Earle Birney, James Reaney, Irving Layton, Anne Hébert, Pierre Perrault and Gilles Vigneault, among others, have attacted widespread attention….” His comments on fiction are similarly dated and thin; the only book dealing with Canadian literature (indeed the only book dealing with Canadian culture) listed in his bibliography is the biographical dictionary Canadian Writers, published in 1964.

Neither in Nicholson’s article, nor in the article “Literature, Western”, nor anywhere in the encyclopaedia, is any English-Canadian writer mentioned who has come to prominence in the past ten years. Margaret Laurence, Al Purdy and Margaret Atwood don’t exist so far as the Fifteenth Edition is concerned. “Literature, Western,” by contrast, is much more up-to-date in its treatment of French-Canadian writers; that section was written by someone knowledgeable in the field — James S. Tasie of Carleton University.

Nicholson’s rule of thumb, like the Fifteenth Edition’s, seems to be, “When in doubt, feed them statistics.” His discussion of Canadian film tells us that three-quarters of the film work done in Canada in 1970 was for television, that in 1968-9 the NFB produced 730 films and won 76 awards, bringing its lifetime awards won total to well over 500, and had its films viewed by several hundred million people at home and abroad. But not one film or filmmaker is mentioned by name.

It’s difficult to understand the reason behind the Fifteenth Edition’s inclusion or exclusion of any given Canadian subject. Three of Canada’s Prime Ministers have separate entries in the Macropaedia: Laurier, Borden, and King. But why three? And if only three, why Borden and not Sir John A.? If the Macropaedia has entries on Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, why not Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau? Why is not one Canadian artist included (although Nicholson does inform us that “seventeen universities offer degree programs in fine art”)? Is it a joke that in the Macropaedia entry on “Canada” we’re told to “see also VISUAL ARTS, WESTERN” and “THEATRE, WESTERN” and there’s nothing there about Canada?

None of this will, I hope, be taken as nit-picking. Almost every library and school in Canada will be acquiring a copy of the new edition. So will a lot of homes. Most of us will at one time or another be consulting it. Used properly — as a convenient first aid — the Fifteenth Edition can be of value — so long as one comes to it without any illusions about how authoritative or complete it is (Britannica’s own claims to the contrary).

Advertisements appearing in a number of magazines proclaim that the Fifteenth Edition “makes all other encyclopaedias obsolete.” Don’t believe them. The sad fact is that all multi-volume encyclopaedias, including the Fifteenth Edition of Britannica, are now obsolete; the form has become outmoded. Knowledge grows too quickly for anything but computers to keep up. My guess is that the new Britannica represents the last major attempt to encompass all knowledge in one set of books.

— Globe and Mail, April 27, 1974

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