Browse Amazon today and you’ll see how far the encyclopedia has evolved—or, perhaps, devolved. There’s the Encyclopedia of Tennis, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the Encyclopedia of Snakes, and a litany of Encyclopedias of Sex. The label “encyclopedia” has been hijacked for its cerebral capital, slapped strategically onto any book attempting to tap a topic’s information—as much as anything else, it’s now a marketing meme, a strategy for making money.
But was it ever not? “In the quest for complete digests and compendia of knowledge, people have always and unquestioningly paid for millions of words they would probably never read,” writes Robert Collison in his 1966 book, Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages. What better racket than publishing a costly, engorged tome that customers must buy again in a few years? There were once 2,300 door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salespeople. One of the last remaining was Myron Taxman, who peddled the books for almost 30 years. “I loved the challenge of making the sale. It was me against them,” he told reporters in 2012, the same year Britannica, founded in Scotland 247 years ago, printed its last encyclopedia.
Still, there remains something soul-stirring about Pliny. “The world is sacred,” he says early on, “finite yet resembling the infinite, of all things certain yet resembling the uncertain, embracing in its grasp all things without and within.” Natural History is more than a compendium of knowledge; it’s a guide for how to live. A manifesto. Pliny reminds his countrymen that food comes from the land, not the market, and medicine comes from herbs, not doctors. He scolds us for our wars, our plundering of the sea, our zeal for minerals: “We penetrate her innermost parts, digging into her veins of gold and silver … we drag out Earth’s entrails.”
It was easy for Pliny to criticize. After all, he was rich, a member of the Roman equestrian order who was bred on figs and shrimp and saffron cake. “Natural History wasn’t written with the masses in mind at all,” says the Duke University Pliny scholar William Johnson.
And the writers who came after him didn’t consider the masses much, either. Take the encyclopedist Felix Capella, whose fanciful fifth-century work Satiricon was an allegory for a divine wedding. Or Cassiodorus, who compiled his epic sixth-century encyclopedia while holed up in a monastery. Or the Brethren of Purity encyclopedia, written by a mysterious group of 10th-century Iraqis, which aimed to construct a universal religious philosophy. Or China’s 15th-century Yongle Encyclopedia. For 600 years it was the world’s largest, but the only two copies were owned by the emperor. Medieval encyclopedias were not for the common people; they were for priests and kings.
That changed in 1751 with the publication of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a general encyclopedia consisting of 71,818 articles and 2,885 illustrated plates. Encyclopédie focused particular attention on a subject rarely treated in print: humans as organic machines, wrangling the materials of the universe in the name of progress. The project discussed clock-making, lock-making, needle-making, nail-making, coin-minting, gut-dressing, silversmithing, ironworking, waxworking, dancing, and spermaceti refining. Writers subtly razzed the Church: They draped the Pope in Japanese robes and depicted the Holy Spirit as a ridiculous bird. “The book was dangerous,” says Robert Darnton in The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie. “They had rearranged the cognitive universe and reoriented man within it, while elbowing God outside.”