Britannica 3, History Of

At Encyclopaedia Britannica headquarters it was time for Something To Be Done, time for some of the old whizbang called product innovation.

The set offers much to admire but little to love. When a reader of the 11th edition wished to be told of gout, he was told with elegance and at a length—two and a half full pages—proportionate to his curiosity and his pain. The human element was stressed above the mechanical, which takes precedence in the 15th because it is less problematical. The 11th offered oddments of information: gout provokes "a remarkable tendency to gnashing of the teeth." Morality was touched upon: gout is less frequently encountered in countries where people are less frequently guilty of "errors in living." The suffering reader was offered the consolations of hyperbole: "So exquisite and lively meanwhile is the part affected that it cannot bear the weight of the bedclothes, nor the jar of a person walking in the room." That's the kind of stuff a gouty reader can take some pleasure from. The 15th offers in its place a nearly lethal dose of condensed shop manual discourse: "The elevation of uric acid appears to be transmitted by an autosomal gene."

If mere utility is the end of this edition (as it was declared the end of the 1st edition, a far more human collection of documents), there are exceptions. Arthur Koestler on HUMOR AND WIT, and Anthony Burgess on THE NOVEL, perform idiosyncratic acts of intelligence, imaginative as well as responsible, and they please as well as instruct.

Burgess, having first lightly touched the novelistic literature of all the lands between the poles, was then set at liberty to tell in quite personal terms of the exactions and bleak satisfactions of making a living off the retailing of make-believe. Sometimes plainly, and sometimes homiletically, his article details the novelist's social and economic situation, answering those questions people most frequently ask writers: How much do you make? How do you feel about paperbacks? Is it an exciting life? (Answers: very little, envious, and no.)

Koestler confronts the question, "What makes men laugh?" in proper encyclopedist's fashion, as though it had never been asked before. His article takes account of the intimidating presence of Henri Bergson in the field, but goes its own very special way, from a lucid exposition of the physiology of the laughter reflex ("the coordinated contraction of 15 facial muscles in a stereotyped pattern and accompanied by altered breathing . . .") to the metaphysics of the phenomenon. He anatomizes a few dirty jokes, takes note of the aggressive impulse behind comic expression, and explores the psychology of tickling.

The article on FRANCE SINCE 1915 is impressively comprehensive: every slogan is quoted, every political movement is named. But the Dreyfus Affair is not given its due, because it is developed elsewhere in the set, under an article dealing with Dreyfus himself. The effects of World War I are similarly, and for the same reason, slighted. The principle of nonduplication is not an unqualified virtue, because it means that the most important people and events in a general article are arbitrarily excluded from it, causing the very fragmentation the Outline of Knowledge was created to avoid.

The 14th edition suffered from a ludicrously backward article on the matter of homosexuality, referring to homosexuals as often "dangerously violent," declaring that "excessively feminine men are not suitable for psychological treatment." The article's tone was lurid and hysterical, and the psychiatrist who wrote it said that "although medically inversion must be considered an illness, there is no doubt that, particularly in large towns and cities, it becomes exploited as a vice." (As does, on the evidence, heterosexuality.) In conformity with the insistence by the present editors that no such personal bias leak into articles, the l5th's reference index piece on homosexuality is a model of dispassionate summary, offering several hypotheses to explain the meaning and causes of the phenomenon, and concluding with the temperate and liberal judgment that "it may well be that a preference for one sex or another is the only obvious or even determinable difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals." (Nonetheless, the long textual reference to homosexuality is to be found in an article called SEXUAL DEVIATIONS.)

Nine months and $3 million were wasted in an attempt to set the type of the Macropaedia by computer before the attempt was finally abandoned in 1970. The editors believe that the hardware was available to set it thus, but in the event computer people could not comprehend the language and special needs of encyclopedia people, and each attempt to fix a computer error in an article seemed to provide the occasion for a new one. The advantage of setting encyclopedia type by computer is obvious: it satisfies the encyclopedia's two special requirements for the retrieval of information and for frequent revisions. The Micropaedia was, however, successfully set and stored by computer, and it's a good thing too, because it looks at first glance as though some adjustments are called for.

While the pianist Bud Powell gets a responsibly comprehensive entry, the late congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., is, in the entry's entirety, a "U.S. clergyman and politician." The curious reader is sent for more to a long article on NEGRO CHURCHES (IN THE UNITED STATES), but nothing is to be found there save a slight elaboration on this cryptic summary; there is nothing, for example, about the legal and ethical complications in his later life in politics. Spiro Agnew's resignation is rather timorously discussed (in an entry a full inch longer than Mortimer Adler's own, the curious, intelligent layman is told only about Agnew's no contest plea to an income-tax charge, and nothing about bribery and extortion scandals), as is a controversy of greater moment. Under the reference index rubric RESURRECTION OF CHRIST it is written: "Because of variations in the reports of the Resurrection and the postmortem appearance of Jesus, certain controversies have arisen among scholars concerning the Resurrection." Yet lest an impression be left that Britannica 3 flies away from ticklish subjects, it should be said that the problem of, and practical treatment for, premature ejaculation are spelled out in the plainest terms available.

Anyone who claims—as Britannica salesmen have been known to claim—that the set is suitable for schoolchildren too young to drive an automobile should be had up for perjury. The Micropaedia entry under SYLLOGISM (which would presumably be consulted only by someone who didn't know what the thing was) is effectively useless: "a valid deductive argument having two premises and a conclusion. The traditional type is a categorical syllogism (a syllogism containing only simple declarative statements) that has only three terms (either a subject or a predicate)." For more information the reader must look to one of seven references in long articles, and to the reader who doesn't know exactly what he's looking for, one appears to be as mystifying as the next. What is needed in such a short entry, of course, is an example of a syllogism. (Encyclopedias are not error free; Britannica 3 is an encyclopedia; Britannica 3 is not error free.) It is my impression, having browsed through the set, that this kind of shortsighted failure to honor the fundamental requirements of the uninformed reader is too often multiplied, and it is a failure that needs mending.

Adler, Preece, Hutchins, and Goetz are proud of the international character of Britannica 3. More than half the contributors live in countries other than the United States, and many of them were obliged to have their articles translated. Thus, again, range and design have been elevated in importance above literary excellence. Perhaps this is as it should be in a set of books intended to distill and record every important thing we know about our world and about one another, regardless of political boundaries. But don't expect from this calculated set of books the often exasperating experience of running headlong into a single man, and his opinions, that characterized the study of the 11th edition; don't expect to have fun with Britannica 3.

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