Amos Urban Shirk read it all, George Bernard Shaw read most of it,  Ernest Shackleton reputedly burned it to keep warm in the Antarctic, while the fictional Jabez Wilson, in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-headed League” thought he had a sinecure for life copying it out longhand. It was, of course, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is now passing into history, at least in printed form, with the last hard copies now selling out.

Its obituaries have been written, in general taking the line that it was well past its sell-by date. One critic sneered it would take a nuclear holocaust, the Rapture or the Mayan End of Days to resuscitate it. I for one will shed a tear at its passing.

Of course in the Internet Age it is impossible to produce a definitive up to date printed reference work to compete with what the Web can provide at the touch of a keyboard.  Arguably we are experiencing an information and communication revolution as profound as that generated by the invention of printing half a millennium ago. How can a work with 100,000 articles compete with a free repository of 3.9 million pieces? Indeed, ironically, one of the best sources of information about Britannica is the current article in Wikipedia.

But Britannica was never just about the quantity of the knowledge it contained. Even thirty volumes and forty million words could hardly scratch the surface of human knowledge, though it was a handy source to acquire a “gintleman’s knowledge” of a topic.

Britannica was attractive as an item of furniture, occupying pride of place in many a middle class home, colonising some or all of a bookcase.  Whether the set was ever opened or not it looked the goods, and as often as not  was one of the jewels in the crown of the family library. Striking, indeed at times intimidating in appearance, a row of solemn identically bound large volumes, with a sonorous title, designations on the spine running from A to Z, and the promise, or threat, that all human knowledge was there.

Many have probably toyed with the idea of reading it all, and some have perhaps even started.  Shirk, who read the entire Eleventh Edition took four and a half years at  three hours a day. Most of us would feel life is too short and abandon the task before long, retaining only, in the words of Sherlock Holmes “the minute knowledge…..gained on every subject which comes under the letter A.” For those who haven’t read it “The Red-headed League” is a joy and I won’t spoil it, but think Jason Statham and “The Bank Job.”

I’ve flirted with Britannicas most of my life, starting in school and public libraries. I actually own two printed versions, as dissimilar as can be imagined.  I struck it lucky at a US Church bazaar in  in 1976. For the princely sum of $25 I bought an old, slightly battered set bound in  semi flexible format with super-thin airmail paper similar to that used in old Roman Missals (remember them?), and dedicated to “the Two Heads of the English-Speaking Peoples” – George V and Calvin Coolidge. Rarely was money so well spent, and though I haven’t done a Shirk, or even a Shaw, I have spent many hours reading and browsing through it and it remains a prized possession.

For it is no ordinary edition but rather the Thirteenth, incorporating the fabled Eleventh Edition of 1910. The Eleventh, very much a fin de siècle work, was regarded as a landmark of scholarship for its time and was the last  Britannica with a classical rather than a contemporary emphasis. 1500 leading academics and experts produced over 40,000 articles, some stretching over many pages, some still relevant a century later.  Joyce and his contemporaries used it, and you can also since, such is its fame, it is now freely available on the web.

My Britannica –buying culminated in 1994, when I bought the deluxe package , trading in yet another Britannica. As well as a spanking new 32 volume Britannica, bound in  handsome burgundy, I got the extended family, i.e. a facsimile of the three volume first edition, the Britannica Atlas (post- Soviet Union), and the Children’s Britannica, in 20 volumes ( to master its contents alone would be an achievement), together with Britannica’s famous sibling, the 60 volume “Great Books of the Western World”. Often criticised (too many dead European males, underrepresentation of women and non-Europeans, bias towards Britain and the USA, etc.) the collection remains impressive, running from Classical times through Shakespeare and the great philosophers to Joyce, Eliot and Orwell.

So I’m ready for Armageddon, with the cream of western knowledge in my bookcase. And if all else fails I can always do a Shackleton.

April 2012


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