Chambers's Encyclopædia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People; On the Basis of the Latest Edition of the German Conversations-Lexicon


Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. Vols. I. and II.
AN Encyclopædia is both a luxury and a necessity. Few readers now collect a library, however scant, without including one of some sort. Many of them, even in the absence of all other books, of themselves constitute a complete library. The Britannica, Edinburgh, Metropolitana, English, Penny, London, Oxford, and that of Rees, are most elaborate works, extending respectively to about a score of heavy volumes, averaging eight or nine hundred pages each. Such publications must necessarily be expensive. They are, moreover, to be regarded rather as a collection of exhaustive treatises,—great prominence being given to the physical and mathematical sciences, and to general history. For instance, in the Britannica, the publication of the eighth edition of which is just completed, the length of some of the articles is as follows : Astronomy, 155 quarto pages; Chemistry, 88; Electricity, 104; Hydrodynamics, 119; Optics, 176 ; Mammalia, 120; Ichthyology, 151; Entomology, 265; Britain, 300; England, 136; France, 284. Each one of these papers is equal to a large octavo volume; some of them would occupy several volumes ; and the entire work, containing a collection of such articles, can be regarded in no other light than as an attempted exhibition of the sum of human knowledge, commending itself, cf course, to professional and highly educated minds, but far transcending, in extent and costliness, the requirements and the means of the great class of general readers. For the wants of this latter class a different sort of work is desirable, which shall be cheaper in price, less exhaustive in its method, and more diversified in its range. In these particulars the Germans seem to have hit upon the happy medium in their famous “Conversations-Lexicon,” which has passed through a great many editions, and been translated into the principal languages of Europe. This is taken as the type, and in some respects as the basis, of the present publication, — there being engrafted upon it new contributions from leading authors of this and other countries, together with such extensive improvements, rcvisals, rewritings, additions, and modifications throughout, as to constitute a substantially new work, exhibiting in combination the results of the best labors of the German, English, and American mind. In the departments of statistics, geography, history, and science, the articles are all within readable limits, accurate, and up to the times; while in the biographical and literary articles there is a freshness and originality of criticism, and a vivacity of style, seldom met with in this class of publications.
The peculiar merit of this Encyclopædia is its convenient adaptedness to popular use. The subjects treated of are broken up and distributed alphabetically under their proper heads, so as to facilitate reference. Wo are thus furnished with a dictionary of facts and events, where we may readily find whatever properly appertains to any particular point, without being compelled to explore an entire treatise. This, by the way, makes it a sort of hand-book even for those who possess the more voluminous works. As a necessary result of such a method of treatment, it will be found, upon an actual count and comparison, to contain more separate titles than any other Encyclopædia ever published. Although the articles are generally brief, it must, not be supposed that they are meagre, for they will be found to present a clear and comprehensive view of the existing information upon the particular topic, with a mastery which arises only from familiarity. Montesquieu said that Tacitus abridged all because he knew all; and no reader can peruse a number of this Encyclopædia without being convinced that the success in preparing the perspicuous abridgments it contains is due to thorough knowledge. Its excellence is not confined, however, to the letter-press ; for we are furnished with a series of colored maps, embodying the results of the most recent explorations, and also with a profusion of admirable woodcuts, illustrating the subject wherever pictorial exposition may aid the verbal. It will be recollected that no other Encyclopædia published in this country has the advantage of illustrations.
The character of Messrs. William and Robert Chambers of itself gives ample assurance that the work is prepared and executed in a superior manner ; but when we superadd to this the fact that they have spared no labor or expense, but have devoted to it all the resources of their experience, enterprise, and skill, in order to make the work, in all its departments, their crowning contribution to the cause of knowledge, we are the more ready to believe that it actually is all that it, claims to be. The American edition by J. B. Lippincott & Co., of Philadelphia, is published in numbers simultaneously with the Edinburgh and London edition, and in an unexceptionable style of typography. Its low price brings it within the reach of almost every reader. Indeed, when we consider the size of the volumes, the number of illustrations and maps, the mechanical execution, and the compensation to the writers, we are at a loss to conceive how it can be profitably furnished at so cheap a rate.