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.

It hadn’t always been this way.  In fact, in tracing the history of dictionaries, Weekley showed that that “‘the dictionary,’ as we understand the word, is a comparatively modern element in life.” The earliest dictionaries, of the Middle Ages, were merely teaching tools for Latin students, and the makers of these books “would have been amused at any suggestion that their own native English was worthy of attention.” It wasn’t until the Elizabethan era that English-speakers began to esteem their language highly enough to study it in any systematic way, but even the Elizabethan lexicographer limited himself to explaining only the most confusing English words.

If these earlier dictionaries were less superfluous, they still had their flaws. In studying the oldest dictionaries, Weekley found “that the dictionary-making animal has certain unvarying peculiarities. He is as irritable as a poet and as full of his own importance as a film star.” John Wesley’s 1753 dictionary bore a small inscription at the foot of its title page: “N.B. The Author assures you he thinks this is the best English Dictionary in the world.”

Weekley reserved his praise for Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary. In part it was the “anecdotic side” to Johnson that made his work appealing: Weekley reported, for instance, that “[a] lady, who simperingly congratulated him on his omission of all indecent words from the Dictionary, was met with the truly Johnsonian retort: ‘So you have been looking for them, Madam?’” Weekley naturally found Dr. Johnson’s work to be “full of personality,” (patriotism, for instance, was defined as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”). But he admired Johnson on purely scholarly grounds, too. Avoiding the conceit of his predecessors, the Doctor was able to sagely discern the limits of the lexicographer (who was, after all, just “a harmless drudge,” by his own definition); in the preface to his great work, he humbly acknowledged that no man in his trade could ever hope to “embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.”

The question of language’s decay would later absorb Simon Winchester in his assessment of yet another reference work: Pierre Mark Roget’s famous thesaurus. Winchester contended that Roget’s work was constantly misused, and that with each instance of misuse the language was becoming “a little worse, a little more mediocre, and a measure more decayed, disarranged, and unlovely. And that, I suggest, is why all Rogets should be shunned.”

Winchester admitted that Roget hadn’t intended for his reference work to become such a pernicious force. Indeed, Winchester portrayed Roget himself quite favorably. He was a man of “staggering polymathy”—a physician, a geologist, a chess expert, an authority on bees and the kaleidoscope. What’s more, Roget was “a thoroughly good person.” As a doctor, he advocated public health reforms and often treated patients who could not afford to pay him. As a scholar, he “held a profound belief in the right of ordinary men and women to know things,” co-founding the “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” As with many encyclopedists and lexicographers, Roget probably considered his labors to be in part a philanthropic endeavor. There was even, Winchester suggested, a religious quality in Roget’s original intention: “His nobly Platonic vision was that the language could come to be seen as an ordered part of the cosmos, amply reflective of divine will and inspiration…. He believed in all sincerity that from out of the miasma of Victorian intellectual confusion could rise a gleaming pillar of lexical glory, a totem to the God who made it all.”

Roget hoped his work would be a Linnaean taxonomy of specimens of the English language. But over time, Winchester pointed out, Roget’s thesaurus came to be used merely as a dictionary of synonyms. Roget had become “a vade mecum for the crossword cheat,” a college freshman’s resource for misguided efforts at elevating diction. (One of Winchester’s own students, dissatisfied for some reason with the phrase “earthly fingers,” had turned to his Roget and decided that “chthonic digits” would better suit.) Worst of all, it had become an unneeded crutch; too many of us, Winchester contended, would sooner reach for a thesaurus than find our own words to match our own thoughts. His final assessment was bleak: “Roget has become no more than a calculator for the lexically lazy: used too often, relied on at all, it will cause the most valuable part of the brain to atrophy, the core of human expression to wither.”

It might startle us to think that a reference work could wield such power. But another Atlantic contributor, John George Rosengarten, had already made this observation in the magazine’s earliest years. His 1868 article, “The Encyclopedists,” assessed the importance of the eighteenth century’s landmark Encyclopédie, an effort headed by “the three great chiefs, Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Diderot.” Rosengarten was impressed by the “influence, powerful alike for good and bad, which the Encyclopedists continue to exert.”

The Encyclopedists lived in an age when, at last, the written word had begun to have some force:

Authors became a power, and showed it by adopting the name of gens de lettres; they were almost a fourth estate. Literature ceased to be a pompous luxury of the great; it gave up its solemn, measured steps…it became popular in itself and powerful in forming public opinion, and then it was that the Encyclopédie was announced.

The architects of the Encyclopédie met with great resistance. The government halted production more than once, and only by currying favor with the king’s mistress were the Encyclopedists able to proceed. The project was at last concluded in the mid-1770s, a quarter of a century after Diderot announced the first volume.

Rosengarten saw in the Encyclopédie “a concert of action on the part of the intellect of France, an alliance of literature and science in the war for truth.” Though the first volumes were “wisely restrained in tone,” the Encyclopedists’ mettle grew as they published more: “The writers speak with greater elevation, the work takes a loftier position, and in its pages can be heard the rustling of the storm that was then gathering, and was soon to break over the devoted head of France.” And when the Revolution came, the voice of the Encyclopedists emerged from the din:

In the midst of the Revolution the same voice could be heard, and it was that voice which triumphed over the storm, and brought France once more to peace, to industry, and to progress, material, intellectual, political. Those who made and the pilot who rode the storm safely are all graduates of the school and indoctrinated with the lessons of the Encyclopédie...the Encyclopédie was a powerful lever with which its authors overturned the past and raised the standard of reform for the future.

Reference works can be many things; they are by turns useful, excessive, vain, superfluous, ingenious, and destructive. As the Encyclopedists showed, a reference work can even be a revolutionary document. And so our librarians are simply upholding a historic practice when they guard these volumes with care. Kings, too, did not want reference books to circulate.

—David Zax