Home » criticism, current events, history

Monumental and Fragile

A Brief History of Encyclopedias: From Pliny the Elder to Wikipedia

by Andrew Brown
Hesperus Press, 2011

Whatever actual employers might think of them, self-educated geniuses have a cherished place in American mythology. From the deschooling and unschooling movements to the secret dreams of after-work swotting-up leading to eventual polymathy shared by millions of blue-collar workers, many of us secretly suspect that education, like lovemaking, is best carried out at home. Publishers have long recognized this, which is why we’ve suffered such a long spate of guides that unfairly malign their own purchasers as Dummies and Idiots, or of books that offer subtitles that promise too much: How Toothpicks Explain the World. Clearly, and thank God, there remain many nonprofessional readers who wouldn’t mind seeing the world explained.

Print encyclopedias—my family’s was red, fat, expensive, and discreetly marred by a chocolate milk spill under the entry for “Film”—were the repository for such polymath hopes in the age before home internet, Wikipedia, and Khan Academy. These books were ubiquitous in bourgeois and working-class living rooms and are now available yard by melancholy yard at your average Goodwill. Does anyone stop to consider how weird they are, or how poignant? To the writer and translator Andrew Brown, they belong to a great tradition of broken promises.

They boast of the numbers of entries they contain, but usually, the more entries (or “headwords”), the smaller the entries and the greater the fragmentation. They pride themselves on being up to date, but they become obsolete more rapidly than the weather forecast. No other cultural edifice is simultaneously so monumental and so fragile.

That passage is a fair sample of the quality on display in Brown’s deeply entertaining short history of the genre. The sentences are trim, orderly, and penetrating, and they tend to issue in neatly balanced paradoxes. If occasionally Brown seems a little gloomy for such an essentially optimistic genre, if he inclines toward the bad-news aphorists of European literature (within the first twenty pages we hear of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Lautreamont—a miserabilist’s trifecta!), that is more than made up for by his wit and elegance, his capacity for the simple and appealing arrangement of large tracts of information. Indeed, A Brief History of the Encyclopedia: From Pliny the Elder to Wikipedia is rare among contemporary nonfiction works in delivering more than its subtitle promises.

Brown begins his historical survey not with the Roman zoologist but with the Athenian gadfly. Socrates offers an encyclopedist’s paradox. On the one hand, he seems, on the evidence of some of the Platonic dialogues, deeply skeptical of those sophists who claimed to offer easily digestible summaries of everything. Only lived-out ideals count. (And yet this is Plato’s Socrates we’re talking about—a follower’s unlived ideal). In “The Statesman,” however, Plato’s Stranger—one of the figures of the late dialogues who seems to say what Plato felt he couldn’t say through Socrates—suggests that his hearers gather all subjects of knowledge into “circles of similarity,” and the treatises of Aristotle, which functioned for much of the ancient and medieval world as encyclopedias, carried out this divide-and-conquer strategy toward knowledge. For the Greeks this drive to categorize and summarize the world’s knowledge was a beginning: of philosophy, of education, of knowledge. For the Romans, meanwhile, it marked an ending. As Brown points out, the Roman works that come closest to our concept of the encyclopedic were written during the transition from republic to empire, to capture ways of thinking already under fire: the rhetorical treatises by Cicero and Quintillian; the compendia of Flaccus, Varro, Seneca, Pliny. Brown treats as the first properly medieval encyclopedias Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and City of God, the latter of which famously responds to the fall of Rome itself.

The middle ages offer some of the genre’s most simultaneously impressive and ridiculous works. These books—Cassiodorus’s Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning, Bartolomeus Anglicus’s De Proprietibus Rerum, the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville—are impressive because they arose in conditions where to have written at all deserves respect. They are ridiculous for precisely the same reason. Hidebound by the scarcity of useful sources, and by undue reverence for the achievement of fellow scholars, these authors transmit one error after another, like schoolkids handing on germs. By the time of Gervase of Tilbury, in the thirteenth century, the encyclopedia is wonder-stuffed. Even medieval Europeans must have felt a twinge of skepticism on reading about the apples of Pentapolis, which look real but yield only ashes when bitten, or of the magical ability wielded by Greek and Jewish women to turn men into asses. (There is surely an Alison Brie joke to be made here, but I will forebear.) Or perhaps you prefer this, from the ever so slightly soberer De Proprietibus Rerum of Bartolomeus Anglicus (a book Brown mentions but lacks the space to cover in depth):

Ethiopia, blue men’s land, had first that name of colour, of men. For the sun is nigh, and roasteth and toasteth them. And so the colour of men showeth the strength of the star, for there is continual heat. … The men of Ethiopia have their name of a black river, and that river is of the same kind as Nilus, for they breed reeds and bullrushes, and rise and wax in one time: In the wilderness there be many men wonderly shapen. Some oft curse the sun bitterly in his rising and downgoing, and they behold the sun and curse him always: for his heat grieveth them full sore.

This lovely, almost Dantesque picture—the burning blue men murmuring their curses at the sun—yields in the very next sentence to the “Trogodites” who live in caves, eat snakes, and make a noise “more fearful and sounding than the voice of other.” Then there are the lazy-nudist people, and the people with eyes in their breasts. At this point the paragraph is still barely half over. The same author, in describing India, falls into a sort of litany of surprise, a series of Also phrases that breathlessly trip each other up like shocked teenage girls.

Also there be so great reeds and so long that every piece between two knots beareth sometime three men over the water. Also there be men of great stature, passing five cubits in height, and they never spit, nor have never headache nor toothache, nor sore eyes, nor they be not grieved with passing heat of the sun, but rather made more hard and sad therewith. Also their philosophers that they call Gymnosophists stand in most hot gravel from the morning till evening, and behold the sun without blemishing of their eyes. Also there, in some mountains be men with soles of the feet turned backwards, and the foot also with viij [eight] toes on one foot. Also there be some with hounds’ heads, and be clothed in skins of wild beasts, and they bark as hounds, and speak none other wise; and they live by hunting and fowling: and they be armed with their nails and teeth, and be full many, about six score thousand as he saith. Also among some nations of India be women that bear never child but once, and the children wax whitehaired anon as they be born.

From this sort of beguiling bullshit, Brown dutifully turns his attention to the far more careful works of Vincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and poor Brunetto, who was known to Napoleon and Mann as a great pioneer of the vernacular encyclopedia but to us—if at all—as the sodomite of Dante’s fifteenth canto. The reader, less responsible than Brown, will feel a slight slackening in interest as the book’s story turns to scholars modern enough to be recognized as such, culminating in the great work of Diderot and D’Alembert. We all admire the Encyclopedie, but one wouldn’t mind hearing just a bit more about ashy apples or sea pigs.

Then again, the Encyclopedie—that monument to the Enlightenment, with its subversive “See Alsos” (a reader searching out further information on “Cannibalism” is directed, among other places, to the entry for “Eucharist”) and its unprecedented level of detail on the mechanical arts—has its share of oddly personal moments as well. With all those salty entries written by folks like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot himself (though the overwhelming majority came from the honorable drudge Louis de Jaucourt), the Encyclopedie reads more like those star-studded Companions To X that are the bread and butter of academic presses than like my childhood World Book, with its accurate but entirely unevocative descriptions. Brown quotes an entry by Diderot that, in fact, describes exactly why so many of those later encyclopedias would prove useless:

Aguaxima, a plant growing in Brazil and on the islands of South America. This is all that we are told about it; and I would like to know for whom such descriptions are made. It cannot be for the natives of the countries concerned, who are likely to know more about the aguaxima than is contained in this description, and who do not need to learn that the aguaxima grows in their country. It is as if you said to a Frenchman that the pear tree is a tree that grows in France, in Germany, etc. It is not meant for us either, for what do we care that there is a tree in Brazil named aguaxima, if all we know about it is its name? What is the point of giving the name? It leaves the ignorant just as they were and teaches the rest of us nothing. If all the same I mention this plant here, along with several others that are described just as poorly, then it is out of consideration for certain readers who prefer to find nothing in a dictionary article or even to find something stupid than to find no article at all.

Brown’s next chapter tells us about the art of the encyclopedia as it developed in that giant footnote known as Everywhere That’s Not Europe. This is my one quibble with the book. Kipling’s sonorous tautology aside, East and West are highly porous, and the lines of cultural transmission have seen intermittent activity for thousands of years. Surely, if a scholar such as Margaret Doody can narrate the history of the novel (with the occasional, honesty acknowledged, and thrilling leap of logic) as one continuous world story, someone can do the same for the encyclopedia. Perhaps this is no more than to say that Brown leaves a great work undone here. On the evidence he does provide, the story of the Chinese encyclopedia seems rich and crazy indeed. Chinese encyclopedists tended to copy earlier books whole, which leads eventually to the absorption of entire literary canons. It all culminates in the eighteenth-century Siku Quanshu, a “book” that is 2,300,300 pages long, consists of over 36,000 volumes, required 300 editors and more than 4000 scribes, and is described, in a somewhat more recent encyclopedia, as “probably the most ambitious editorial enterprise in the history of the world [citation needed].”

In description—and description is as close as any non-English speaker can hope to get to the Siku Quanshu—the Chinese encyclopedia looks both backward and forward. On the one hand, a book so insanely comprehensive can only be called “encyclopedic” with some abuse of language; the Emperor Qianlong’s purpose, in commissioning it, was actually to bring together every Chinese book worth reading, and—not incidentally—to identify and destroy those works not worthy of inclusion in this blessed venture. In the event, the editors destroyed, in many cases permanently, nearly as many books as they included whole: over 3000. The Siku Quanshu is thus the most aggressive kind of canon, an Index Librorum Prohibitorum in reverse—or a set of Harvard Classics that destroys all other books on contact.

It also sounds a bit like Wikipedia, a subject to which Brown subsequently turns his attention. One of the major legitimizing events in Wikipedia’s history was, after all, its gradual inclusion of the great 1911 Britannica to cover those subjects, and they are many, on which the English-speaking cultural conversation has failed to advance in 101 years. Look up a minor British poet on Wikipedia and you’ll in all likelihood find yourself reading the 1911 Britannica’s entry on that person, give or take a paragraph. These entries are usually acknowledged as such. Now look up a contemporary American experimental writer. You may find that half the entry’s sentences are stolen from the same one or two linked sources it uses to buttress itself against criticism—and these borrowings are frequently unacknowledged. Wikipedians, at their worst, freely plagiarize, and just as works like the Siku Quanshu (also available on the Internet, for those who know Chinese) tend to become indistinguishable from the canon of classical Chinese literature itself, Wikipedia tends, as Brown notes in one of his typically insightful asides, to become the Internet: “A deeper objection to Wikipedia lies in the fact that its hyperlinks to other parts of the Internet threaten to blur the distinction between Wikipedia and the rest of the Web. The whole of the Internet may be seen as a vast, cranky, weird, only partly reliable, but user-friendly … and infinitely explorable encyclopedia.” The genre swings toward Qianlong Dynasty-style infinite inclusion, and in the process—or so Brown seems to suggest—loses its distinctive absurd, wonderful tension between coherence and comprehensiveness.

In his aphoristic final section, Brown describes a boy, clearly himself, whose home library consisted of a medical dictionary and a stack of old Watchtowers. Two kinds of apocalypse: the revelation of the secrets of personal death, and of the death of the world. The encyclopedia, Brown suggests, is always a memento mori. I see him and raise him. Every reminder that one will die is also a reminder that one lived. And a good encyclopedia is a model of the human being: infinite connections, limited space.

Phil Christman is a writer and teacher who can be found online at http://philipchristman.com/. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.

One Comment »

1 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.