Book Review: “Everything Explained That Is Explainable”



The notion that one would physically house all the world’s most essential knowledge at your own house in dozens of identical-looking books would probably strike members of the 21st-century’s “iGeneration” as a tad presumptuous — even ridiculous.

Yet, for the better part of 244 years — from its first edition in 1768 until it went solely online in 2012 — this was the role of the venerable and massive Encyclopaedia Britannica, as indispensable to everyday information-seekers as Google is today.

Of its 15 editions, the most famous is the 1910-1911 11th edition, notable not only for being the first multi-volume encyclopedia to be published as an entire set simultaneously, but also for the literary quality of its entries, written by the leading minds of the day including Darwinian biologist T.H. Huxley, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Where the previous edition’s 17,000 often book-length entries had required considerable studiousness from its readers, the 29-volume 11th, under the editorship of journalist Hugh Chisholm, instead featured 40,000 shorter entries, making it the first truly modern encyclopedia. In fact, so well-regarded is the 11th edition that in 2006, tens of thousands of its articles were uploaded to Wikipedia to augment the online encyclopedia.

In this meanderingly entertaining (if misleadingly titled) book, Denis Boyles recounts the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras of the Britannica, with a focus on the personalities behind it, as well as its publication by the equally venerable newspaper the Times of London before Boston’s Cambridge University Press would take over the reins for the 11th.

A France-based journalist and regular contributor to the National Review, Boyles is best known for writing travelogues and compendiums of miscellany and practical advice aimed at primarily male readers, as well as for his conservative polemics Vile France (2005) andSuperior, Nebraska (2008).

Perhaps attracted to the subject matter by his apparent fascination for trivia, Boyles draws colourful portraits of the Americans who would reinvent Britannica, and in the process revolutionize book marketing: Horace Everett Hooper and fellow bookseller Walter Montgomery Jackson, as well as ad man Henry Haxton.

Boyles’ narrative of the Americans’ audacious 1898 scheme to recruit the troubled Times to reprint and dramatically discount the decades-out-of-date 9th Edition is particularly enjoyable, especially the attention he lavishes on Haxton’s obnoxiously verbose and relentless advertisements — one example, reprinted as an appendix, runs a full eight pages.

The ads may have been annoying but they were wildly successful, making Britannica a household commodity and rescuing the Times from insolvency.

In devoting so much attention to the ninth and 10th editions of Britannica, Boyles adheres surprisingly closely to Herman Kogan’s classic 1958 history of the encyclopedia, The Great EB, which leaves precious little space to devote to his book’s ostensible focus. In fact, the story of the 11th Edition really only gets underway on page 233, occupying the final third of the book.

Boyles shares the conventional understanding that what makes the 11th edition so particularly valued 100 years on is its singular world view born of imperial hubris — that of universal, rational and technological Anglo-led progress — an illusion that would be so decisively destroyed, only a few years later, on the battlefields of Europe.

Yet this sense of a decisive purpose is notably missing from Boyles’ own book, which lacks a formal introduction and devotes two chapters of questionable relevance to various behind-the-scenes machinations at the Times, which actually had nothing whatever to do with publishing the 11th edition.

Everything Explained would also have benefited from a stronger sense of critique. While Boyles acknowledges some of the 11th’s more offensive entries (the shockingly racist “Negro” being only the most notorious), he puts forward no particular perspective or argument of his own, beyond admiration for its literary excellence.

At the same time, his remarkable conclusion that “we can’t say exactly how the Eleventh’s world is different from ours” is belied by his admission that its offences are apparent only in hindsight — which is to say, from the vantage of a postmodern, post-colonial and nominally progressive, yet fragmented, polarized and increasingly fact-averse world, one its authors would hardly recognize.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911.
By Denis Boyles.
Knopf, $36.00. 464 pp.

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 6th 2016.

Photo: Paul Friesen