Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Encyclopaedia Britannica - The Final Edition (continued)

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 enclyclopaedias, 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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