Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: Everything Explained That Is Explainable

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911
Books, business

This is, to my slight regret, a book that's more about the business of publishing the Encyclopaedia Britannica than about creating the content of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As business biographies go, it's quite good; the story is a rich one, almost soap-operatic. There are several larger-than-life characters whom Boyles intelligently keeps (mostly) at the center of his stories. Nonetheless, I think he just missed writing a great book, as opposed to a pretty good one.

Mind you, I can understand how it happened. There's a novelistic quality to the story arc. As Boyles tells it, the central conflict was between the English establishment and the American Horace Everett Hooper, who used American-style advertising to (arguably) save The Times of London and to (undoubtedly) boost encyclopedia sales. Among other things, it's an interesting retrospective on an era when the gap between cultures was much wider, when Progress was all the rage, and when privileged expertise could assume a near-sanctified level of authority.

Great stuff, sure, but where's the titular Encyclopaedia? A little too often the answer is "lurking in the wings somewhere." If it's true, as is often said, that the 1911 Britannica was an achievement of singular brilliance, elegance, and scholarship, what made it so? Boyles touches on the answers--for one thing, it was conceived and executed as a single whole rather than as a collection of articles--but I think he spends too little time there, and too much time in business trivia. 

Everything Explained That Is Explainable is a still a good read. It's lucid, pleasingly snide in places, judicious, and well-structured. If it sometimes wanders away from what I think is the main point, that's a venial rather than a mortal sin; but it's still a tiny bit of a shame.

The best-known works of this sort are Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything, both of which deal with the similarly magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. My faithful readers will also note some crossover appeal with You Could Look It Up, which offers some insight into the insanely difficult and time-consuming process of creating good, timely reference books--and which makes Horace Hooper's achievement seem all the more remarkable by comparison.

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