Old volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica

Book review: ‘All the Knowledge in the World’ by Simon Garfield

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The extraordinary history of the encyclopedia.

Guess what my first major purchase in the West was, shortly after fleeing from the USSR in the 1980s and settling in Australia? Not a second-hand jalopy, a three-piece suit, or a clunky word processor. I bought – from a glib Polish salesman - the latest edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The bulky leather-bound volumes – all 28 of them – arrived shortly afterwards in the back of a van. They could hardly fit in our small Melbourne flat, but I was in seventh heaven. The very mass of my purchase appeared sufficient to ram through the wall of the information hunger I had been experiencing all my life in the Soviet Union, where even general knowledge publications like encyclopaedias, directories and dictionaries were heavily politicised and strictly censored.

I recall my mother telling me how, in the early 1950s, when Stalin’s henchman Lavrentiy Beria was exposed as a ‘British spy’ and subsequently executed, all subscribers of the multi-volume ‘Great Soviet Encyclopaedia’ received in the post several printed sheets to be glued into the letter ‘B’ volume where the article on the notorious head of the Soviet secret police was printed.

The enclosed instruction requested that all the Beria pages be cut out of the book and the new ones, including a disproportionately lengthy article on the Bering Strait, inserted instead. Inspectors from the state Glavlit agency would conduct random checks to make sure everybody had complied, households were warned.

It was then, while leafing through the glossy pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica, that I for the first time felt myself a truly free person. Little did I know that after several years of peripatetic existence, the thirty-odd weighty volumes (with several annual supplements added) would become a millstone round my neck and I would be trying in vain to sell my once invaluable Encyclopaedia for a tenth of its original price.

Eventually, an antiquarian bookseller friend of mine agreed to buy it, as a huge favour, for one-twentieth of the cover price. Mind you, I hadn’t parted with Britannica as such, having replaced all those folios with one small and reassuringly near-weightless compact disc.

Having finished Simon Garfield’s ‘All the Knowledge in the World’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99, ISBN 9781474610773), I felt deep regret at having got rid of my hard copy. How could I not feel remorseful after reading the following deeply felt lines: “I hope this book has encouraged you to think twice about throwing out an old set of encyclopaedias, of whatever vintage, whatever quality. I hope it may even encourage you to rescue it from a charity shop, or AbeBooks, or eBay.”

That is from one of the final pages of Garfield’s magnificent book, which is a mini encyclopaedia in itself. An encyclopaedia of encyclopaedias, it is even designed like one, with a chapter title for each letter of the alphabet: from ‘Aah, Here Comes Andrew Bell’ to ‘Zeitgeist’. And the story it tells is truly extraordinary.

The very first Encyclopaedia Britannica, conceived and edited by two Scotsmen, Andrew Bell and William Smellie, and published in Edinburgh in 1768, was predated by at least 40 others, the oldest of which – Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia - goes back to 77AD. Those that followed, to name just a few, included Francis Bacon’s treatise ‘The Advancement of Learning’ and Ephraim Chambers’ ‘An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences’, and of course Britannica’s direct precursor – Encyclopedie by Denis Diderot, the first edition of which appeared in Paris in 1751.

Garfield’s book contains fascinating descriptions of the largely utopian attempts to create a source of universal knowledge by Gustave Flaubert and HG Wells. The latter cherished the idea of a ‘World Encyclopaedia’ that would become a kind of a live and pulsing ‘World Brain’ – “the epitome of pantology; a systemic view of all human knowledge.”

Garfield makes it clear that all great thinkers of the past regarded encyclopaedias not just as sources of technological and humanitarian erudition, but as the obligatory components of democratic freedoms. A fact that I myself was able to glean during my life in the totalitarian USSR, where, in full accordance with George Orwell’s ironic slogan, ignorance was indeed strength, and knowledge a liability.

‘All the Knowledge in the World’, however, is not just a reference book (after all, one can look up all the dates, names and technologies in a relevant dictionary, or encyclopaedia). It is a perfectly styled work of literature – at times sad, at times funny, but always full of life.

Here’s how Garfield describes one of Andrew Bell’s prominent (perhaps even too prominent) physical features: “His wasn’t an averagely large nose, or even a very large nose. His was a nose that won rosettes, and you could pin the rosette on his nose and he’d hardly notice, such was its pocked and fleshy expanse. It was the size of an avocado. It made the proboscis monkey look like Audrey Hepburn. When people met him they found it impossible to look away, such was its implausibility.”

The book is also a work of love, for only love can generate a passage like this one in response to Wikipedia’s repetitive pleas to donate £2. “... I donated £12, the price of a set of Britannica at the end of the eighteenth century. I couldn’t think of anything that provided better value.”

‘All the Knowledge in the World’ is one of those few books that I’ve found impossible to put down. The reason? It is consistently enthusiastic in tone. Garfield, in the same way he himself describes Pliny, seems to be “in love with the entire world.”

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