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Britannica Is No More: Britannica Wins!

The news out of Chicago is that the Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publication, at least in ink on paper between boards, after 244 years. This story is being pitched as the triumph of Wikipedia over its elderly rival. “Britannica no more,” Alexander Nazaryan’s blog notice at the New York Daily News was headlined: “Wikipedia wins.”

To be fair, Nazaryan dated Britannica’s decline to an earlier time, when its ranked multiple brown-spined volumes “signified middle-class sophistication.” So true. So obviously true. Say no more. You will easily recognize the bogus middle-class sophistication in this entry on, of all things, Encyclopaedia:

The Greeks seem to have understood by encyclopaedia (έγκυκλοπaιδία, or έγκύκλιος παιδεία) instruction in the whole circle (έυ κυκλω) or complete system of learning — education in arts and sciences. Thus Pliny, in the preface to his Natural History, says that his book treated of all the subjects of the encyclopaedia of the Greeks, “Jam omnia attingenda quae Graeci της έγκυκλοπαιδίας vocant.” Quintilian (Inst. Orat. i 10) directs that before boys are placed under the rhetorician they should be instructed in the other arts, “ut efficiatur orbis ille doctrinae quam Graeci έγκυκλοπαιδείαν vocant.” Galen (De victus ratione in morbis acutis, c. 11) speaks of those who are not educated έν πην έγκυκλοπαιδεία. In these passages of Pliny and Quintilian, however, from one or both of which the modern use of the word seems to be taken, έγκύκλιος παιδεία is now read, and this seems to have been the usual expression.

Try reading that into the earpiece of a half-educated CNN news anchor! Granted, this entry is from the 11th Edition, which Robert Grudin once described as “the queen of books.” (I went out and purchased an entire set of the 11th Edition after reading Grudin’s hilarious academic novel, Book [1992], which counterposes quotations from the 11th against the English department’s Critical Theory to contrast real knowledge to its hip and prolix ersatz.) Yet the entry in the 15th Edition is not much cruder:

In the Speculum majus (“The Greater Mirror”; completed 1244), one of the most important of all encyclopaedias, the French medieval scholar Vincent of Beauvais maintained not only that his work should be perused but that the ideas it recorded should be taken to heart and imitated. Alluding to a secondary sense of the word speculum (“mirror”), he implied that his book showed the world what it is and what it should become. This theme, that encyclopaedias can contribute significantly to the improvement of mankind, recurs constantly throughout their long history.

One suspects that it is precisely this theme which has caused Nazaryan to snort “Wikipedia wins.” He travesties the theme as Britannica’s “underlying belief that ordinary individuals could better themselves intellectually through casual perusal of its tomes.” (From those last five words it’s hard to tell whether Nazaryan is making fun of the Britannica’s uppity middle-class “perusers” or only demonstrating how even a book blog — perhaps a “tome blog,” in his case — can be written pretentiously if you strain hard enough for variation.)

In plain fact, the mission of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is summed up in the two entries I have quoted. On the one hand, it intended to draw together the “whole circle” of human learning in one manageable set of volumes. On the other hand, it sought to improve mankind by making the “complete system” of knowledge readily available to anyone. If and only if Wikipedia has abandoned this mission will I join in the chant “Wikipedia wins!” Truth be told, though, I am pretty confident that Wikipedia exists to pursue the same twin goals — just in a different format.

Britannica wins, after all. The first edition was completed in 1771 and published in three volumes in Edinburgh. It was compiled, according to its title page, on a new plan: the disciplines of human knowledge, the sciences and the arts, were “digested into distinct treatises or systems,” rather than being divided and scattered “under a multitude of technical terms,” as in earlier encyclopaedias. From the beginning, then, the Britannica had the advantage of keeping important subjects together while making cross-reference easier via numerous separate articles. Not quite two-and-a-half centuries later, Wikipedia uses the same plan. Britannica wins!

The second edition was published in ten volumes between 1776 and 1783; the third, in 18 volumes between 1787 and 1797; the fourth, in 20 volumes between 1801 and 1810. The fifth edition was a reprinting of the fourth, but the sixth edition was a top-to-bottom revision. Work began with an article on chemistry by Sir Humphry Davy, and was finally published in 20 volumes in 1823.

From then on, the Britannica was a corporate effort of serious scholarship, enlisting some of the best minds and writers of its day. The authors of the queenly 11th Edition, published in 1910 and dedicated simultaneously to King George V and President William Howard Taft, included Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Matthew Arnold, James G. Frazier, Alfred Russel Wallace, Leslie Stephen, Andrew Lang, Prince Kropotkin, John Muir, the economist Frank Taussig, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, T. H. Huxley, William Graham Sumner, Edmund Gosse, Arthur Waugh (Evelyn’s father), the German theologian Adolf von Harnack, J. S. Haldane, Algernon Swinburne, the musicologist Donald Tovey, Jessie L. Weston (whom T. S. Eliot made famous), Sir James Murray (editor of the OED), the football coach Walter Camp (to explain American football, naturally), George Darwin (Charles’s son), Brander Matthews, and the Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams among many others.

In short, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a literary classic. And since so many sets were purchased in so many places all over the English-speaking world across so many years, the Britannica will be available, in print, for decades to come — as long as there are antique stores and used bookstores and desperate readers (as opposed to casual perusers) to haunt them.

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