Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Encyclopaedia Britannica - The Final Edition (continued)

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.”)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, continued > 

home | about grubstreet books | return to this book’s table of contents
e-mail: the author | the publisher | our webmaster    web site: ben wolfe design

support grubstreet’s on-line books — make a contribution

grubstreet books
grubstreet books
grubstreet books