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.
More

In a 1961 memo to the Board of Editors, Adler sang a song of product image, salesmanship, and balance sheets. He argued that a restructured Britannica "should give the sales force and the sales promotion department a shot in the arm. Furthermore, it should put EB further out in front—in relation to all its competitors here and abroad. This would be so new and advanced an encyclopedia that its competitors would never be able to catch up." That is, assuming it sells. Adler predicted that "just as the Syntopicon dramatizes the special character of the GB [Great Books] offering, gives the sales force its most useful sales gimmick, and puts GB way ahead of all potential competitors, so the proposed Syntopicon volumes for EB could have the same kind of sales effect."

But Eugene Solo, vice president in charge of sales, doesn't think so. A sharp dresser who talks from the side of his mouth, Sollo says that the Propaedia, "saleswise, is baloney." The sales force made some trial runs before the publication announcement and they found the Outline of Knowledge too complicated for their customers easily to comprehend. The Micropaedia (although salesmen don't use the fancy ersatz Greek monikers) has so far shown itself to be the surest "sales gimmick" in the set. Self-education, though, is a siren song indeed, and in any long­-distance run you have to bet on Adler's invention.

Plan B's utility to the editor, Warren E. Preece, and to his executive editor, Philip W. Goetz, was fundamental. The Outline of Knowledge in its earlier manifestation as a table of intentions was the instrument by which concepts were transformed into the outlines of articles which Preece commissioned, beginning in 1969. Goetz explained that "the Propaedia was the secret we had to guard most closely. Because any encyclopedia could be built on that system. What it told you was what the state of learning was in every field, and we really kept it under wraps."

Hiding the processes of Plan B was no easy trick. While the editorial offices at 425 North Michigan Avenue are now abandoned warrens, a jumble of hidden cubicles arranged along blind alleys, Britannica's headquarters were for a long time very busy indeed. While most other reference book companies were laying people off, the Britannica was hiring enough editors­—360 at the staff's peak—to process an average of 400,000 words a week, to check for accuracy, to pick among the million and more pieces of artwork considered for illustration, to assign articles and modify them.

In fact, the entire project was successfully kept a secret, and the people Britannica executives were most eager to keep in ignorance were their own salesmen. John Robling, vice president for public relations and advertising, said Britannica's greatest fear was to take the wind from the sails of the 14th edition before the 15th was ready to be sold. In other words, the company wanted its salesmen to peddle an obsolete set (otherwise the new one couldn't be paid for), but it didn't want them to know they were peddling an obsolete set. "Obviously," Robling concedes, "some people are going to be disappointed, and say, 'If you knew you were going to bring out the set, why didn't you just tell us?'" As it happens, a trade-in policy has been created for those unfortunates burned with sets of the 14th, and though the president of the Britannica, Charles E. Swanson, was tight­-fisted with an exact figure, it seems that between $75 and $150, plus of course the 14th, will fetch Britannica 3.

The new set will sell for between $550 and $700, depending on its binding and the other products, or merchandise as they like to call it, the buyer wants. (Wants is perhaps not precise, since it is rarely possible to buy the Britannica without investing in a bookcase or a pair of dictionaries or some study guides or Britannica Junior. As the salesmen see it, this extra stuff is thrown in free with the set. As I see it, the buyer is forced to buy extra stuff. And if Plan B was highly classified information, try, just try, to get a direct reply to this question: "How much does the set, I just the set please, cost?")

Britannica 3 will stand or fall on the utility and intellectual character of the nineteen-volume Macropaedia, the set's 4207 long articles. From 1969 it was Warren Preece's responsibility to select contributors, to hold them to a high level of generalization, to placate them when they were offended—and often justly—by liberties taken with their text. Preece is a tall, bearded fellow, articulate, a man evidently sensible of the effect he registers on people near him, a man who knows his mind. His special signature as a Britannica editor has been his conviction that Britannica editors know better than Britannica authors what an article should say and to whom it should be said.

Copy was very lightly edited during the days of the 14th edition, on the theory that contributors were smart fellows and good writers, else they wouldn't have been selected as contributors. (Also, a writer paid two pennies per word for his work could not be expected to tolerate the added infamy of rewriting.) The editors of the 15th edition worried copy mercilessly. Every article had been outlined before the contributor received his assignment, and when he received it he was warned that to add to the material in his outline would be to duplicate material appearing elsewhere in the set, while to ignore something included in the outline would be to leave it out of the set. Contributors were not to write for their fellow specialists. This had been one of the Britannica's most flagrant vices since the days of the 11th edition. Before that day, it might almost be said that most readers of the Britannica—because of its high price and more dignified profile—were educated generalists. But after the beginning of this century, as the educated reader's knowledge deepened and narrowed, the erudite specialist began to write for the set not to inform the layman of his apprehensions on a subject, but to defend himself against the ridicule of some peer eager to charge him with barbarism and simplification.

The result was an increasingly incomprehensible set of books. The articles on mathematics traditionally were applauded by journals that judge articles on mathematics, but their utility to the general reader was marginal. The effect was the creation, in the 14th edition, of an intellectual babble rather than an intellectual concert. For the new edition it was assumed that the curious, intelligent layman would be ignorant of the details of material he looked up (why otherwise look it up?) but that he could read English and was prepared to exercise his wit and reason.

Contributors were paid a minimum of $100 for an article, and a maximum of $5500, and they averaged ten cents a word. A set of encyclopedias was given as a bonus for the longer articles. Few complained about these fees, but many complained about the violence done to their copy in the name of clarity and concision. About two hundred of five thousand abandoned their assignments in anger, or missed deadlines till they were sacked, or couldn't produce what was expected of them.

Contributors were kept in the dark about Plan B's grand design, and many of them balked at the rough treatment they received from Preece, and from Philip Goetz, who with Preece read all the articles in the set in whatever capricious order they happened to arrive in the office. Goetz, speaking without regret, said "we really shoved it down their throats. People in the arts all fancy themselves good writers, and they gave us the most difficult time." There was a sensible embargo against jargon, and one against bias, the latter probably impossible to enforce without gutting some of the articles and robbing them of salt. It will take a great deal of time for evidence to accumulate regarding the intellectual vitality of this set of books. Accuracy, of course, can better be won by a committee armed with computers than by a single intelligence. But while accuracy binds the trust between reader and contributor, eccentricity and elegance and surprise are the singular qualities that make learning an inviting transaction. And they are not qualities we associate with committees.

It must be left to someone with more time and greater patience to review the set. (Such an enterprise has been performed, believe it or not, in past years, perhaps most notably by C. K. Ogden in 1926, for the Saturday Review of Literature.)

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.

In fact, Plan B very nearly became an attempt to create another 11th edition. The agent who threatened to confound Adler's scheme was Sir William Haley, former director of the BBC and editor of the London Times, a man Benton called "the most distinguished editor in the Western world." Benton offered the job of editor-in-chief to Sir William, and he accepted it early in 1968, in the very heat of the execution of Plan B.

Haley did not like mini-encyclopedias, so he did not like the reference index. And instead of Great Ideas, he was attracted to Great Articles. He wanted a much longer encyclopedia than the 15th has come to be. He liked bizarre and out-of-the-way articles on such things as matches (which have a curious history), while Adler was subdividing FIRE. He and Adler clashed, and Adler won the battle and the war. When Haley left in early 1969 he wrote a note to a former Britannica colleague who had also resigned which said, "I'm glad you left, dear boy. The people there worship different gods than we do." Benton's Haley interlude has been estimated to have cost the project eighteen months and some multiple of a million dollars.

In 1911, the encyclopedia editor Frank Moore Colby identified the fix of the encyclopedist, the "middleman of information . . . vibrating between specialist and layman, an object of suspicion to both. I am snubbed by the learned and yet not welcome by the totally illiterate." The dilemma speaks also to the dilemma of publicists: who is that mythical creature, the curious, intelligent layman? To judge by the promotional poetry of the bad old days, the potential buyer was nobody more or less than a parent who hadn't gone to college, who might be persuaded that he hadn't been to college because his parents hadn't owned the Britannica, who wanted better for his own. A decade and less ago Britannica debased the art of discourse and the craft of salesmanship by inquiring of magazine and newspaper readers: HOW WILL THEY MEASURE UP AGAINST THE KIDS NEXT DOOR? (showing a couple of children with dreamy eyes). Or a mother, shown with a babe too young to coo, let alone read about relativity, was asked: HOW CAN YOU EXPRESS THE INEXPRESSIBLE LOVE YOU FEEL FOR YOUR CHILD? (Don't ask again, sir, sign me up!)

Since then, the readers, the customers, seem to have changed. Judging from the advertising campaign launched on behalf of Britannica 3 (so dignified and instructional in tone as to seem almost suicidally fusty), the children whose parents bought the Britannica and the World Book and Collier’s and the Americana are the targets for today's salesmen (who seem to have modified their foot-in-the-door aggressions, their will-o'-the-wisp chance-of-a-lifetime deals).

Since Britannica seems inclined finally to treat customers as though they can speak, read, and reason, it is depressing to hear Robert Hutchins, whose reverence for eternal verities he has many times proclaimed, announce that Britannica 3 is "one of the great intellectual contributions in the life of modern man." It is no such thing, of course. It is, however, a most desirable reference and learning tool, imaginatively designed and honorably executed. In Mortimer Adler's more candid judgment, a fine encyclopedia: more useful in more ways to more people.

Remember that slogan—as though they'll let you forget it.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In