I know a written work whose scope and purpose are unsurpassed by any other in the English-speaking world. Moreover, I know of no other that can match its paradoxical ability to arouse, equally, both hope and despair. It is nevertheless taken largely for granted. To mention its name is, at best, to court apathy from listeners and, at worst, to invite the patient smiles reserved for innocuous cranks. In fact, if a reasonably normal person were to start heatedly chirping about the glories of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to close friends, his remarks would be paid the briefest polite attention.
You can almost see it, can't you? The nervous glances around the room, the jiggling of twizzle sticks in the mai-tais, depthcharges, or whatever the enthusiast's friends happen to be drinking. You can see them fidget in their seats, pick through the mixed nuts for the stray almond, the fugitive cashew. They suck ice from glass as they watch their friend chatter feverishly, squirrellike, on and on, about some amusing tidbit he's run across in the Micropaedia. And all the while several of the more impatient among them conspire to knot their cocktail napkins into a noose with which to silence the Britannica-lover.
How, you might ask, can one blame them? After all, stating publicly, "I really like to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica" is not quite the same as "I am, before and above all else, an avidly passionate disciple of the collected letters of Madame de Sevigne." However, the truth is this: to find the Britannica boring is to find the world boring. A yawn at its mention betrays enslavement to egocentricity — because the Encyclopaedia is about, if such a vast compendium of knowledge can be said to be "about" anything at all, learning in its broadest sense, and learning is an act of faith whose implicit doctrine is that the world outside the self is far more interesting and worthy of attention than the world within.
There are, to be sure, even ardent Britannicists who would take exception to any sweeping summation of the Encyclopaedia's merits. They might say, "Well, it's certainly all fine and good to sermonize the wonders of the E.B., but exactly which edition do you have in mind? Anything after the 13th edition printed in 1926 is trash as far as I'm concerned." Others would carry on about the scandalous reorganization of format witnessed in the 1974 15th edition. But as a latter-day son of postmodern America, the 1986 15th edition suits me just fine: the "incredibly complete" two-volume index, sometimes called the "switchboard to Britannica," with its 411,500 references; the 12-volume "Facts at Your Fingertips" Micropaedia with its 61,000 articles; the magisterial "Seventeen Volumes of Knowledge in Depth," known also as the Macropaedia, with its 23 million well-chosen words — "literally, virtually everything you need to know and more"; and the all-embracing, one-volume "Outline of Knowledge," known to its friends as the "Autodidact's Delite."
It is obvious that each of its roughly 31,000 pages is useful; but I have also said that the Britannica is a hopeful work. The hope it offers is twofold: firstly in its very presumption that there is nothing any individual with a modestly developed capacity for abstract thought cannot grasp; and secondly in its successful role as arbiter in countless domestic disputes. In illustrating the last regard, imagine, please, the following:
It is a hot, still night. Connubial love totters near the Abyss. Tragedy hovers in the humid air - there may be blood on the floor before daybreak.
"Sweetheart, you know very well that rabbits aren't classified as rodents, and I think it's perfectly silly of you to harp on such a blatantly asinine point."
An ominous silence.
"Oh, yeah? Well, darling, howdya like a fat lip?"
"Charming. Before I rip open your wee little skull to pulverize that rat's-size brain of yours, let's take a quick look-see in the dear ole Brit, shall we?"
Anguished, rabid, the couple descend upon the handsome black tomes in a frenzy of stark intellectual need. The index instantly directs them to the pertinent volume, article, and page number. Within seconds — remember, Britannica's justice is as swift as it is impartial — an exultant shout rattles the nuptial bungalow's windows.
"Aha! There it is! Rabbits are not rodents. Do you see it, you ravishing, stubborn fool? I'm right, again, and I love you all the more for it!"
Time after time, the Encyclopaedia finds itself at the vortex of passions — both outside its pages and within. For those who think the Britannica brokers in stodginess, they had best reconsider. Known for being both comprehensive and dispassionate, the Encyclopaedia enlists authors who are completely fluent in their respective fields. Such expertise, however, is an inevitable result of the tremendous allegiance a scholar feels toward the subject of his or her life's work. Struggle though they may to maintain a neutral tone, the authors' pretense often shatters, and prejudicial ardor erupts through their staid prose. Take, for example, these lines from Dr. Mary R. Dawson's description of the pika — one of the many animals discussed in the Macropaedia's 120-page-long article on mammals:
Rock-dwelling pikas usually seek shelter among rocks and boulders.... Mountain hikers or climbers frequently hear their calls and may see these attractive little creatures sunning themselves on rocks and going about their daily activities.... (italics mine)
Or this from Robert St. John's tellingly subjective assessment of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in the Micropaedia:
Although complex and revolutionary in his public life, privately Nasser was conservative and simple. He knew the loneliness of power. He was more than six feet tall, weighed about 200 pounds, had close-cropped hair, a swarthy complexion, the physique of an athlete....
Clearly, in addition to being a consummate reference work, the Britannica is a thinly disguised romance as well. Its 32 volumes embrace the world. All of nature, humanity's strivings, our cities, our sciences, our wars, our philosophies. It should not be surprising, then, that within this generous scope, the Britannica, as I have said earlier, also makes room for despair. It would, one must admit, be dishonest and self-defeating for the Encyclopaedia to exclude it. One could, however, argue that any description of parasites is too much description for the human spirit to bear. Nonetheless, the Britannica provides a detailed and devastating account of their horrifyingly assiduous lifestyles. The reader's sensibilities are similarly unspared in the article on "Languages of the World":
Many Romance dialects have virtually ceased to be spoken in the last century. Of these, Dalmatian is the most striking, its last known speaker, one Antonio Udina, having been blown up by a land mine in 1898. He was the main source of knowledge for his parents' dialect (that of the island of Veglia, or Krk), though he was hardly an ideal informant; Vegliot Dalmatian was not his native language, and he had learned it only from listening to his parents' private conversations. Moreover, he had not spoken the language for 20 years at the time he acted as an informant, and he was deaf and toothless as well.
The Britannica may never tell us how to say "Watch out, mister! Don't step over there!" in Dalmatian. But in its pages Antonio Udina's name will live on, and that, in a sense, is this work's essential achievement. The Encyclopaedia Britannica serves to assure us that the world and human events have meaning; that what we do and have done is somewhere — in the Britannica's editorial offices, at least — duly noted for reference and filed. To browse the Encyclopaedia's pages is to ratify this achievement. And, more than that, it is to leave behind chaos and ignorance and dwell, however briefly, in a place where no question goes unanswered.