Editor's Choice December 2004

Cheap at $13,000

What to read this month

Three great university presses have each issued a long-awaited and immense reference work. The sixty-volume (!) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the most important of these. In fact it will surely be one of the great publishing achievements of this century. The original DNB, the first volume of which was published in 1884, was a monument to the scope, depth, and wit of late-Victorian learning, and (often) to English prose style. Its first editor, Leslie Stephen (the very model of the English man of letters, a self-described "considerate autocrat," and the father of Virginia Woolf), injected an astringent tone into many of the DNB's often stylish histories of the significant or merely noteworthy figures—generals, admirals, statesmen, writers, artists, scientists, scholars, royalty, and (mostly) clergymen—in Britain's past (he believed, he said, in the "real value of good, sweeping, outrageous cynicism"). The editors of this entirely new edition have retained the best features of the original, and they've accomplished the extraordinary: their work, on nearly every level, outshines its predecessor. All 38,600 persons covered in the original have kept their places (though 70 percent of their biographies were entirely rewritten, and the rest substantially revised and expanded). And the editors have added 16,300 new ones. These include Americans born before independence (the Founding Fathers among them) and foreigners who spent a significant period of time in, or made important observations on, Britain; Eric Hobsbawm's 8,700-word article on Karl Marx is now by far the most incisive introduction to that gloomy revolutionary, "known from student days to his intimates as Mohr (the Moor)." The new DNB's temporal range goes back to Piltdown Man (whose entry begins, "Archaeological hoax, never really existed"); its imaginative sweep extends to John Bull and Britannia (and also to King Arthur and Robin Hood, who were included in the original). More important, it isn't (in the words of one of its editors) "merely a roll-call of the great and the good" but also "a gallimaufry of the eccentric and the bad"—here are soothsayers, thieves, hangmen, and impostors. The tone is usually dry and often witty; I've had more fun with this book (I've read what amounts to a minuscule sample, about 900 pages) than with almost any other I can remember. To be sure, the first aim of the DNB is to be authoritative, and it pays a price in fulfilling that purpose. The recognized (and predictable) experts on their subjects, mainly academics, have written most of the entries—which means, inevitably, a certain number of conventional and workmanlike biographies. But the writing is always clear, frequently graceful, and more than occasionally sharp. Of the tens of thousands of entries, hundreds are masterpieces of pen portraiture, a literary art at which the British since at least John Aubrey have excelled. Many of the often lengthy articles (the one devoted to J. S. Mill is more than 21,500 words, the great and sassy Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury's 15,600, and George Eliot's 13,800), which assess not only the career but also the private life, character, work, and posthumous reputation of a subject, resemble—in fact, are—gemlike biographies rather than dictionary entries. The best achieve complexity and nuance but utterly lack superfluity. Costing $13,000 and taking up twelve feet of shelf space, these volumes exceed the budgets and storage capacities of nearly all private book buyers. But a subscription to the online version costs $295 annually. It's much easier to handle than the print version, allows readers to search in various imaginative ways, including by theme (every British saint, every Foreign Secretary), and—an important bonus—contains every article from the original edition. But you do lose one of the great pleasures of this work, which is the serendipitous discovery that comes from leisurely browsing. A publisher responsible for this tour de force and the Oxford English Dictionary is doing God's work.

The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, edited by David J. Wishart (Nebraska), dissects nearly every aspect of the region but is especially strong on Native American history and warfare (refreshingly, stressing competition and conflict among the tribes) and on perhaps the Plains' most characteristic features: weather and physical environment (Wishart is a geographer). But the 919-page book suffers from a clumsy and somewhat PC organizational scheme. In an effort to "emphasize the contributions" of hitherto "overlooked" groups, the editor has eschewed a straight A-to-Z structure in favor of thematic chapters containing alphabetically arranged entries (the same choppy organization mars the otherwise excellent 1989 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture). The result is that Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks are discussed in the "African Americans" chapter, but Ralph Ellison is covered in "Literary Traditions." (I was happy to see that Willa Cather also made it into "Literary Traditions," but I first looked for her, as probably the finest lesbian American novelist, in the "Gender" chapter, where her fellow Nebraskan novelist Kate M. Cleary is listed.) Charlie Parker's entry is in "Music," but two other black jazz saxophonists, Ornette Coleman and King Curtis, are in "African Americans" (the need for this chapter is itself somewhat unclear, since the encyclopedia notes that "viewed at the national scale, the Great Plains, along with the intermontane West, have the lowest populations of African Americans"; the same is true for Asian-Americans, another group granted its own chapter). And what's Charlie Parker doing here at all? He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, which according to the encyclopedia's criteria is (just barely) in the region, but he moved at seven to Kansas City, Missouri, which the encyclopedia excludes from the Great Plains. Place of birth, it seems, is sometimes enough to be given an entry: what else could explain Demi Moore's inclusion? She was born in Roswell, New Mexico, but moved more than thirty times before settling in West Hollywood at age thirteen. (There's no excuse for including Moore in the "Film" chapter but omitting James Garner, an actor who has always identified himself as an Oklahoman—he was born in Norman—and who is the embodiment of the decent, easygoing plainsman. On the other hand, that chapter correctly avers that Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven "is perhaps the most … beautiful depiction of the Great Plains ever created on film.")

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and national editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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