Let those encyclopedias burn!

Indeed, the purpose of an encyclopaedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race in the future years to come. Denis Diderot

A certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages [of ‘‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’’] it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f ) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges

I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopaedia. Let them walk to school like I did. Yogi Berra


The philosopher Julian Baggini recently set light to his 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britanica. I imagine that many of you will be horrified by such barbarism. It has echoes of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451. The German poet Heinrich Heine famously said: ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ This remark was very prescient as it comes from a play written more than a hundred years before the rise of Nazism. Burning books is seen as a sacrilegious act; this quote from The Penultimate Peril, the sixth book in the Lemony Snicket series illustrates this taboo:

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding–which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together–blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labour that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author . . .”

What motivated Baggini to engage in premeditated bibliocide? He makes an eloquent case for why the “mouldy, unread and long out of date” encyclopaedias had to go:

In my defence, this was more of a cremation than a burning at the stake. The books were already dead, terminally rotted after years of neglect. If I had committed a crime, it was to let them get into this sorry state, not finally to put them out of their misery.

Encyclopaedias have existed for some two millennia; the oldest still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was written in AD 77 by Pliny the Elder. The modern encyclopaedia evolved out of dictionaries around the 17th century. Some were one-volume works, but soon multi-volume encyclopedias would emerge. Indeed, the largest print encyclopedia in the world is the Spanish language Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana. It is made up of 116 books, 175,000 pages and 200 million words.

An important landmark in the history of the encyclopaedia was the French Encyclopédie, which has been dubbed “the European Enlightenment in book form.” The project attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment – Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Denis Diderot. Their goal was to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopaedia.

It has to be said that the beginnings in 1743 were not too auspicious. The original idea was to translation Chambers’ Cyclopaedia from English into French. The Parisian book publisher André Le Breton was the man behind the project. John Mills, an Englishman living in France, was hired. However, due to Mills’s deficient knowledge of French, – he could barely read or write it – the translation was a disaster.  The publisher had Mills beaten up – he was punched in the stomach and hit over the head with a cane. Mills sued for assault, but the French court ruled that Le Breton’s actions had been justified and acquitted him.

The project was then taken on by Jean le Rond d’Alembert, one of Europe’s leading mathematicians. His partner in crime would be the Enlightenment polymath Diderot, who was born 300 years ago. It became a bestseller with 28 volumes which were published in a period of more than 20 years. A complete set of the first edition cost some 1,000 livres, and there were over 4,000 subscribers. The publishers made a fortune even though the work was quickly pirated and reprinted in cheaper editions. Plus ça change.

Louis XV banned Diderot’s encyclopedia in 1759 for “damage that results from it in regard to morality and religion“. It was banned a couple of times. There were decidedly anti-religious overtones to the work. Religion was categorised as a product of human reason and not an independent source of knowledge. A famous example was the cross-references provided for cannibalism, which directed readers to the entries for Eucharist, communion and altar.

There is no doubt that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, was conceived in part as a response to the Encyclopédie. The Britannica was primarily a Scottish enterprise. It is one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment, the period between when Adam Smith, David Hume and others helped Scotland become an intellectual powerhouse. It began as a three-volume set; the final print version came with 32 volumes. Last year, after 244 years, the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was finally killed off. If you want to consult it now, you have to go online. One man who will surely miss it is the journalist A.J. Jacobs, who spent nearly eighteen months reading the entire set, some 44 million words, for his entertaining memoir, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s several large popular encyclopaedias began to be sold on instalment plans. It is unfortunate that books that should be a celebration of human knowledge became associated with unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen. These shysters would use all the tricks of the trade as they preyed on hapless customers. They would often begin with the $10,000 limited edition. After that the $1,500 for the standard edition seemed like a bargain. Parents wanted their children to have the Britannia Advantage. I suppose you can interpret this in two ways. You could see it as a powerful example of how parents were prepared to make important sacrifices for their children’s future. On the other hand it shows how marketers were able to create a state of anxiety in their customers, playing on parents’ fears. It is an example of consumer culture driving unrealistic goals. As Baggini points out:

A child’s success does depend on school grades, but these depend more on the social background and the culture of the home than any purchased learning aids. A set of encyclopaedias that remains an item of furniture is not enough to give a child an edge; nor is it necessary if the household is one in which learning, inquiry and debate are all part of daily life.

Baggini believes that these would probably have been better off investing their money on real books that children might actually have read. Encyclopaedias may have been the most admired volumes on the bookshelves, but they were also the least read. I hardly remember ever consulting them. This is like when people have Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on their bookshelves.

As the 20th century came to a close, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use on home computers. I absolutely loved Encarta, which Microsoft launched in 1993. The encyclopaedia, which had no printed equivalent, had around 50,000 articles, with additional images, videos and sounds. Little did I know that the relentless march of creative destruction would do away with this wonderful tool – in 2009 Microsoft pulled the plug on Encarta. What killed it off were of course the online encyclopaedias, the most famous of which is Wikipedia. Microsoft just couldn’t compete with a product that apart from being free was much more dynamic, with it being possible to update articles in real time.

I celebrate the demise of the encyclopedia. We shouldn’t be taken in by its mystique – the smell of the leather binding and the intellectual authority that these weighty tomes embody. They may have been beautiful objects, but I prefer the freedom that an internet connection gives us. In Spain they like to invoke Saint Google.  Information has been democratised and I welcome it.

There is a deeper idea here. We need to forget the idea that knowledge, which is in a constant state of flux, can be set down in black and white. Encyclopaedias belong to a time when knowledge was owned by a handful of established authorities, who would decide not only what was true but what deserved to be included. How will we cope with a loss of faith in absolute knowledge?  I have no problem embracing uncertainty. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education will have to adapt to this. Baggini argues that we haven’t yet fully worked out what the demise of print encyclopaedias, and all they symbolise, means for truth and knowledge. We need to find a philosophically coherent position between absolute certainty and absolute relativism. Online encycopaedias better reflect the reality of human knowledge. The print encylopaedia is dead. Long live Saint Google!

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