Flashbacks August 2006

A Taxonomy of Knowledge

Atlantic authors from the nineteenth century to the age of Wiki wax philosophical on encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauri.

Not all books are created equal. To a librarian, at least, this truth is self-evident: some books are too important to lend out at all. These are, of course, the reference books—the hefty atlases and almanacs, the dictionaries and encyclopedias that everyone turns to on occasion. The most oblivious or stubborn library-goer, making the mistake of bringing one of these volumes to the check-out desk, invites the librarian’s stern whisper: Reference books don’t circulate!

Such are the rules of reference. But as Marshall Poe points out in his September article “The Hive,” it was Wikipedia’s decision to flout all such rules that has led to the Internet encyclopedia’s startling growth. If we were to imagine Wikipedia as an actual library book, none of the normal rules would apply. Not only would it circulate, but patrons would be encouraged to tear some pages out, mark up others, and paste new ones in according to their inclination. These are the new rules of reference in the age of the wiki—and the result has been, according to Poe, “what may one day be the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history.”

In writing this article, Poe is participating in a venerable, if obscure, Atlantic tradition of passing judgment on reference works. Indeed, these grand, ambitious volumes have held a fascination for Atlantic contributors nearly since the magazine's birth, as this collection of articles stretching back into the nineteenth century makes clear.

In 1974, Geoffrey Wolff offered a history of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had recently released a greatly revamped fifteenth edition, nicknamed Britannica 3. The Britannica’s many charismatic editors loomed large in Wolff’s article, most of them depicted as extraordinarily monomaniacal and egotistical. Horace Hooper, owner of the 1911 edition, vowed, “I’m determined that the eleventh edition must be the greatest book ever published”; once it was done, he hardly regretted setting the bar so high, declaring, “There! It is finished. It is like the Bible.” Wolff described William Benton, financer of Britannica 3, as “a man of extraordinary vanity”: when President Johnson honored him in a 1967 ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution, Benton was heard to whisper, “It’s coming too late.” Perceptions of the project itself were also greatly inflated: Robert Hutchins, then President of the University of Chicago, which owned the rights to Britannica 3, didn’t hesitate to declare it “one of the great intellectual contributions in the life of modern man.”

Wolff’s own estimation of Britannica 3 fell a good deal lower. In tracing the evolution of the Britannica, Wolff concluded that the earlier editions represented “a far more human collection of documents.” In his view, as the encyclopedia had gone through its long series of revisions, accuracy had become its sole desideratum—an accuracy achieved by committee. And “while accuracy binds the trust between reader and contributor," he wrote, "eccentricity and elegance and surprise are the singular qualities that make learning an inviting transaction. And they are not qualities we associate with committees.” To illustrate his point, Wolff imagined a reader of a previous edition suffering from gout.

When a reader of the 11th edition wished to be told of gout, he was told with elegance and at length—two and half full pages—proportionate to his curiosity and his pain…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 latest edition, by contrast, offered the gouty reader only what amounted to “condensed shop manual discourse: ‘The elevation in uric acid appears to be transmitted by an autosomal gene.’”

Wolff conceded that the new Britannica was “a most desirable reference and learning tool, imaginatively designed and honorably executed.” But he would go no further in his praise. There remained something lacking from what he called “this calculated set of books,” and he warned readers: “don’t expect to have fun with Britannica 3.”

Half a century earlier, Ernest Weekley had complained about supposed improvements in another reference staple. In “On Dictionaries,” Weekley went on a small tirade against the superfluities of the modern lexicographer: “Nowadays every dictionary contains…perhaps ninety-nine hundredths of unnecessary matter. Who, for instance, wants to know that a dog is a ‘well-known domestic quadruped’…?” Weekley found “the great Oxford Dictionary” the greatest culprit in this regard:

[It] tells us that to kiss is ‘to press or touch with the lips (at the same time compressing and then separating them), in token of affection or greeting, or as an act of reverence’—a piece of erudition usually acquired by the youngest and least experienced without lexicographical help. Probably not a hundredth part of the dictionary is ever used by any individual reader; but as the compiler cannot expect everyone to need the same fraction of his work, he is obliged to put in everything, and even cater for the eager student who is uncertain whether a dog may not be a centipede.
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David Zax is an intern for The Atlantic Monthly.

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