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Information, Please

Information, Please

May 10, 2005

People who met Aldous Huxley would sometimes notice that, on any given day, the turns of his conversation would follow a brilliant, unpredictable, yet by no means random course. The novelist might start out by mentioning something about Plato. Then the discussion would drift to other matters -- to Poe, the papacy, and the history of Persia, followed by musings on photosynthesis. And then, perhaps, back to Plato.

So Huxley's friends would think: "Well, it's pretty obvious which volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica he was reading this morning."

Now, it's a fair guess that whoever recounted that story (to the author of whichever biography I read it in) meant to tell it at Huxley's expense. It's not just that it makes him look like an intellectual magpie, collecting shiny facts and stray threads of history. Nor even that his erudition turns out to be pre-sorted and alphabetical. 

Rather, I suspect the image of an adult habitually meandering through the pages of an encyclopedia carries a degree of stigma. There is a hint of regression about it -- if not all the way back to childhood, at least to preadolescent nerdishness. 

If anything, the taboo would be even sterner for a fully licensed and bonded academic professional.
 
Encyclopedia entries are among the lowest form of secondary literature. Very rare exceptions can be made for cases such as Sigmund Freud's entry on "Psychoanalysis" in the 13th edition of the Britannica, or Kenneth Burke's account of his own theory of dramatism in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. You get a certain amount of credit for writing for reference books -- and more for editing them. And heaven knows that the academic presses love to turn them out. See, for example, The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Mercer University Press), The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press) and The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press), not to mention The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge).

It might be okay to "look something up" in an encyclopedia or some other reference volume. But read them? For pleasure? The implication that you spend much time doing so would be close to an insult - a kind of academic lese majesty. 

At one level, the disdain is justified. Many such works are sloppily written, superficial, and/or hopelessly unreliable. The editors of some of them display all the conscientiousness regarding plagiarism one would expect of a failing sophomore. (They grasp the concept, but do not think about it so much as to become an inconvenience.)

But my hunch is that social pressure plays a larger role in it. Real scholars read monographs! The nature of an encyclopedia is that it is, at least in principle, a work of popularization. Probably less so for The Encyclopedia of Algebraic Topology, assuming there is one. But still, there is an aura of anti-specialization and plebian accessibility that seems implicit in the very idea. And there is something almost Jacobin about organizing things in alphabetical order.

Well then, it's time. Let me confess it: I love reading encyclopedias and the like, at least in certain moods. My collection is not huge, but it gets a fair bit of use. 

Aside from still-useful if not cutting- edge works such as the four-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) and Eric Partridge's indispensible Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Origins (Macmillan, 1958), I keep at hand any number of volumes from Routledge and Blackwell offering potted summaries of 20th century thinkers. (Probably by this time next year, we'll have the 21st century versions.) 

Not long ago, for a ridiculously small price, I got the four paperbound volumes of the original edition of the Scribners Dictionary of the History of Ideas, first published in 1973 -- the table of contents of which is at times so bizarre as to seem like a practical joke. There is no entry on aesthetics, but one called "Music as Demonic Art" and another called "Music as a Divine Art." An entry called "Freedom of Speech in Antiquity" probably ought to be followed with something that brings things up to more recent times -- but no such luck. 

The whole thing is now available online, with its goofy mixture of the monographic ("Newton's Opticks and Eighteenth Century Imagination") and the clueless (no entries on Aristotle or Kant, empiricism or rationalism). But somehow the weirdness is more enjoyable between covers.

And then, of course, there is the mother of them all: the Encyclopedia or Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts that Denis Diderot and friends published in the 1750s and '60s. Aside from a couple of volumes of selections, I've grabbed every book by or about Diderot in English that I've ever come across.

Diderot himself, appropriately enough, wrote the entry for "Encyclopedia" for the Encyclopedia.

The aim of such a work, he explained, is "to collect all the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to present its general structure to the men with whom we live, and to transmit this to those who will come after us, so that the work of past centuries may be useful to the following centuries, that our children, by becoming more educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and happier, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race."

Yeah! Now that's something to shoot for. It even makes reading encyclopedias seem less like a secret vice than a profound obligation.

And if, perchance, any of you share the habit -- and have favorite reference books that you keep at hand for diversion, edification, or moral uplift -- please pass the titles along below....

 

 

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