Simon Garfield’s remarkable new book is about encyclopedias. That sounds boring, and sometimes is, although he does his best to make it engrossing. In the early pages he describes how he toured the home counties by car, buying up copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their owners are only too willing to part with them for, as the blurb of Garfield’s book reminds us, in the 1920s and 1930s an army of persuasive door-to-door salesmen vended their wares to guilt-ridden and upwardly mobile middle-class parents who feared that without these mighty tomes their children would fall behind at school.
In fact, the 11th edition serves a purpose that Garfield does not mention. It is a time machine. Its pictures and descriptions of cities and countries show a world that two world wars have swept away. Here, preserved in photographs and tiny print are Joseph Conrad’s Africa, Marcel Proust’s France and the Germany of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. That may be one reason why my father, who fought in the First World War and lived in France for much of the 1930s, valued it.
Although Garfield admires the Encyclopedia Britannica, he is alive to its faults, among them blatant racism. He warns readers that they may wish to skip some passages that he quotes, comparing the Black to “the white races”, which, he scathingly comments “serve to remind us what a time it was”. He adds that Britannica expressed “similarly assured prejudices” against Chinese, Afghans, Arabs and Native Americans. On anti-Semitism, it was “so naive as to be almost comical”, declaring it “a passing phase in the history of culture” half a century before the Holocaust.
Racism was not the only prejudice of which Britannica was guilty. There was also sexism. Garfield’s account of this is mainly derived from the writing of Janet Courtney, née Hogarth (1885-1954). She was exceptionally brilliant, with a first in philosophy at Oxford. Philosophy was normally a men-only subject, but Oxford made an exception in her case. Although she worked at the Britannica offices, most of her contributions to the 1911 edition were small, and all were unsigned.
Although Simon Garfield admires the Encyclopedia Britannica, he is alive to its faults, among them blatant racism. He warns readers that they may wish to skip some passages that he quotes.
The paragraphs on Britannica’s sexism are among Garfield’s best. He notes, for example, that there was no entry for Marie Curie, despite her pioneering work on radioactivity and her Nobel Prize for physics. These achievements were covered only briefly in the entry for her husband, Pierre Curie.
Yet ultimately, Garfield decides, it was not sexism or racism that spelled the end for Britannica, but time, which we are all short of. Riffling through the pages of an encyclopedia takes longer than looking things up online, although the creation of Wikipedia could not have been achieved had not encyclopedias been created first. Wikipedia, like many products of human ingenuity, is a child that has eaten its parents.
It is impossible in a review to give readers an impression of the scope and power of Garfield’s knowledge and imagination. All the same, taking readers into the distant history of encyclopedias can quickly seem redundant.
An entry on ancient Chinese encyclopedias could, I feel, be spared, and so could Garfield’s entry on the Suda (or Fortress), a vast 10th-century Byzantine Greek historical encyclopedia combining material on classical antiquity with Biblical and Christian sources.
Interestingly, its entries are arranged in alphabetical order, as they are in Garfield’s book, so that it seems to be a combination of dictionary and encyclopedia. The great romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Garfield discusses elsewhere, seems to have believed that even works of fiction should be arranged in this way.
Ultimately Garfield’s difficulty is how to make big, sweeping statements about encyclopedias yet retain a human dimension.
John Carey is a U.K.-based critic and professor of literature. He is the author of numerous books, including A Little History of Poetry, The Unexpected Professor, and What Good Are the Arts?