We have a deep love and respect for encyclopaedias. Indeed, we collect them, where finances allow. One of our small pleasures in life is to examine the articles from each in our collection on a subject and discover how views differ from one decade to another or from one country to another -- and each so confidently authoritative. We now learn that one of the greats, which we had hoped would return one day, will never do so.
We have mentioned here before the Glorious Eleventh, the eleventh and most perfect edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1910 and supplemented in 1922. It was the last edition to be published with that belief that now seems whimsical -- that it could "treat of everything that can be learned by man in this life."
We are fond of the three supplementary volumes, which are mostly fascinating, often bitter, first-hand accounts of the First World War, by people still shell-shocked and not fully able to understand the cataclysmic changes that war wrought. The era of pure scholarship being any sort of a social force died then, though that was not understood for a while. The time when one could believe that all knowledge, assiduously gathered from experts across the globe (including many from France), could be assembled in one work, an encyclopaedia, was gone. The company was sold to Americans. It continued publishing, trying to keep up by inventing a "Macropedia" and then by going online, but now, after two hundred and forty-four years, it has given up the ghost. As reported on the website of the New York Times, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has ceased publication.
There are some French who will claim that they invented the encyclopaedia, citing the Lebreton work to which Diderot contributed. That work was the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, and began, as the Glorious Eleventh tells, as a translation from English into French by John Mills and Gottfried Sellius of the Cyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers which was published in London in 1728. (How we wish our collecting funds would run to a set of either of those!) But the effort to assemble all knowledge in one place was not originated by anyone. There were dozens of encyclopaediae in one form or another, from Pliny to the Chinese encyclopaedia of 5020 volumes that took two centuries to create, to all the piddling little encyclopaedias of this and that published today.
The encyclopaedic mission -- to embody all knowledge, presented by those who understood it best for the benefit of all -- was a beautiful dream that lives on, in a bastardized and chaotic form, in the very World Wide Web that killed this and so many other publications. Yet, now, the striving for the definitive has given way to the acceptance of the amorphous. Wikipedia? Look carefully and you will see that it contains, faithfully transcribed, many large passages from the Glorious Eleventh.
©2012 Anne Morddel