Rule Britannica!

by Paul Dean

According to Wikipedia, Wikipedia includes over 5,200,000 articles, with 800 added each day, and is available (so far) in 292 languages. It is consulted by nearly 500 million users every month. The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which appeared in 2010, was the last in printed form; it is now available online only, on payment of an annual subscription, and is also regularly updated. The number of articles is estimated at around four million, but this is probably too low. The rivalry between these two reference works is intense, and underlying it is a more general issue about the dissemination of information in a digital age. Indeed, the very concept of “information” has been called into question; there are legal and ethical issues at stake when a site has unrestricted access and invites contributions from private individuals. Furthermore, the whole idea of an authoritative reference source is contested; the sheer rapidity of developments in every field of intellectual enquiry makes yesterday’s certainties into today’s errors—my opening statistics are almost certainly inaccurate by now, a week after I looked them up—and there will always be accusations of bias or downright misrepresentation. Wikipedia has frequently been criticised in that respect, while the owners of Britannica, of course, make much of the supposed greater expertise behind their articles. Denis Boyles’s new book recalls us to an earlier age when the status of hallowed institutions was less sceptically regarded (Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910–1911, Knopf, 442 pages, $30). His story involves not one, but two, such institutions, the Britannica and the London Times (hereafter The Times, as distinct from The New York Times). Their fortunes were intertwined, at the turn of the twentieth century, in ways now all but forgotten. Boyles’s subject is the eleventh edition of the Britannica, published in 1910, which for many years was regarded as a model of what such a work should be: but he takes a long run-up to it, and I hope I may be allowed to take an even longer one.

The dream of total knowledge is one which, it seems, we cannot quite relinquish. It goes back at least as far as the belief in an omniscient deity, and this attribute has been gradually and hubristically transferred to humankind. Setting aside some early precursors, the modern history of the encyclopaedia as a genre begins with Diderot and his fellow-contributors to the French Encylopédie which appeared in instalments between 1751 and 1772. The project was controversial from the start because of its Enlightenment respect for freedom of thought, the sovereignty of rationalism, and scientific method. The work was constantly hindered by the government, the church and the law, and censored even by its own publisher. Noble in conception though it may have been, it was based on several fundamental misconceptions: that everything about a given subject will sooner or later be both knowable and known, and that, once it is known, progress in that subject will inevitably be made. Applied globally, this ought to mean that the more we know, the more the human race will progress: simply to state the thesis is to see its fallaciousness. This theory, called by Herbert Butterfield “the Whig interpretation of History” in his 1931 book with that title, was demolished by Flaubert in Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), a novel conventionally regarded as a failure but which in fact is a great masterpiece. The two retired copy-clerks named in the title, animated by Enlightenment sentiments, decide that now, finally, they have the chance to educate themselves. They resolve to master every branch of human knowledge, only to find each attempt ends in disappointment and failure. They buy a country estate, and their crops fail; their explorations of medicine and dietetics only make them horribly ill; their study of history convinces them that objective facts are unattainable; they find classical literature too sterile and romantic literature too fanciful; the contradictions of philosophers and theologians bewilder them. As one sort-lived enthusiasm succeeds another, they become a local laughing-stock and some of their neighbours murmur that they should be removed to an asylum. Finally, in the most heartrending episode of all, they adopt two orphans and set out to educate them in the spirit of Rousseau. The children prove to be stupid and vicious, repaying their benefactors’ kindness only with contempt. Poor Bouvard and Pécuchet! They read all the best books on every subject, to no avail. Flaubert died before completing the novel, but we know that he intended his disillusioned dreamers to go back to their desks and their comfortingly mindless routine.

Bouvard et Pécuchet may well be the greatest anti-Enlightenment satire ever written. It exposes with merciless irony the folly of believing that the truth about anything can be found by consulting the supposed authorities, and comes close to suggesting that truth itself is a chimera, since every “expert” will interpret the data in a different way. The instinct to categorize and systematize is bound to be foiled by the sheer variety of possible experiences. Only once does Flaubert refrain from mockery. It is Christmas Eve, and the distress of the luckless pair has reached such a pitch that they decide to hang themselves. At the last moment, realising they have not made their wills, they abandon the plan (shades of Waiting for Godot!), and are drawn towards the church where the villagers are assembling for midnight Mass. Despite their scepticism, they are moved by the faith of the congregation to join in the hymn of praise, “and they felt,” says the narrator, “as though day had dawned in their souls.” This is a superbly moving moment, suggesting that there is an irreducible mystery about human life which cannot be docketed in an intellectual pigeon-hole.

The first edition of the Britannica had appeared in 1768, and thus overlapped with the Encyclopédie. Successive editions had been overtaken, practically before they were completed, by developments in the branches of knowledge which they treated, so there was a constant need for revision which, naturally, was also an excellent commercial opportunity. By the late 1890s the publication had reached the Ninth Edition, but was looking tired and was poorly promoted by its publishers, A. & C. Black. In 1898 The Times was also in a very bad financial position. Its proprietor, Arthur Walter, was apathetic, its editor dull-witted, its staff indolent, its working practices archaic, and its circulation steadily falling. C. F. Moberly Bell, who had been its dazzlingly successful Egyptian correspondent for twenty-three years, was brought in nominally as assistant editor, but quickly took over the de facto management of the paper. He horrified the staff by introducing typewriters and telephones into the office, shoehorned some literary articles into the acres of political reporting, and recognised the value of advertising in boosting revenue and circulation.

Enter, with impeccable timing, two enterprising Americans, Horace Everett Hooper and Henry R. Haxton. In his teens, Hooper had discovered an easy way of making money; he virtually invented the mailorder business for cheap reprints of literary classics. Reference books, he soon found, were even more desirable; they could be sold as complete multi-volume libraries, exploiting the desire of respectable families to better themselves and give their children a decent education. The books might be outdated, but that made them all the cheaper to buy, and his customers were not going to fuss too much. Hooper was lucky to have come across Haxton, who was an advertising copywriter of genius; in 1897 they had persuaded The New York Times to market the Ninth Edition of Britannica, unrevised, as the Tenth Edition although its earliest volume had appeared a quarter of a century previously, and even the most recent one was ten years old. Hooper and Haxton reckoned that what worked in America might work in England. With financial backing from Walter Montgomery Jackson, an American entrepreneur who had made a fortune from the sale of upmarket limited editions, they bought the rights to the Ninth Edition from A. & C. Black and went to see Moberly Bell, who was impressed by their energy and optimism. Thus, in 1898, for no expenditure and a commission on every copy sold, the proprietors of The Times were persuaded to lend their prestige to the reprinting of the Ninth Edition by such novel and, to the paper’s staid readership, outrageous promotional methods as full-page advertisements, payment by instalments, and even the sending in of a coupon. Haxton trumpeted the Britannica as “the essence of all books, ancient and modern.” The discounted price of the set made it attractive to a wider audience, and the reputation of The Times was taken as a guarantee of respectability. After two months, 4,300 sets had been sold, almost half the total sales for all previous editions. The Times Atlas and The Times Edition of The Century Dictionary quickly followed. The paper was solvent, and Moberly Bell became a convert to slick marketing.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Ninth Edition was showing its age could not be ignored, and in 1899 The Times announced the forthcoming publication of a Supplement, also sometimes called the Tenth Edition (not to be confused with the American Tenth Edition). The challenge had to be faced of offering enough new material to make purchase attractive, while refraining from changing the entire scope of the work. The eleven volumes of the Supplement appeared by the end of April, 1903, a remarkably speedy process, and their completion was celebrated at a huge dinner attended by the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons and five hundred persons eminent in public life. Sales were boosted by the ruse of a “Times Competition,” first prize £1,000, which required competitors to send in their names and addresses, in return for which they would be sent general knowledge questions which, as it happened, could all be answered by consulting the Britannica. Those who had been foolish enough not to buy a set could rent one. Eleven thousand entries flooded in. Everyone who entered was urged, by what we would now call a mailshot, to buy the Tenth Edition.

The campaign, if brilliantly successful, was also deeply distasteful to many. “You have made a damnable hubbub, sir,” wrote one MP to The Times, “and an assault upon my privacy with your American tactics.” One can only imagine his reaction when, on 4 July, 1904, the paper appeared with page after page of advertisements for commercial products interspersed among the newsprint. These were not the decorous small advertisements, the “personal columns” beloved of Sherlock Holmes, which continued to occupy the whole of the front page until 1966 (The Times felt there was something vulgar about putting news on the front page). They were big box displays such as we find in newspapers today. Hooper reasoned that an Eleventh Edition of the Britannica, which he already had in mind, could only be funded by increased circulation of the paper, which in turn could be a means of generating advertising income. He persuaded Moberly Bell to reduce the subscription—unchanged since 1861 despite increased production and distribution costs—for a limited period. Those taking advantage of this offer would have the paper delivered to their door by post or by the local newsagent, rather than having to buy it themselves from a shop or street vendor. The revolutionary edition of 4 July, 1904, was the result of this scheme. It brought in thirty thousand new subscriptions, more than enough to offset the cancellation of existing subscriptions by apoplectic long-standing readers. This massive financial gamble was underwritten, not by The Times, but by Hooper himself. A subscription book club and lending library, opened in 1905, was equally guaranteed by him.

Boyles makes an essential point when he writes:

Hooper had no conception that the Britannica would be as profitable without The Times as with it. He considered it essential to his success; he had built his empire on the rickety foundation of The Times, and now he was trying to repair that foundation. So doing whatever it took to add a subscriber was, to Hooper, the same as turning up a lead for an encyclopaedia sale. That thinking animated all that Hooper would do for the next several years.

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In 1905, Hooper overreached himself. He and Moberly Bell opened a Times bookshop which would sell books, including the latest publications, at a discount to those who subscribed to the paper. Books could also be taken out on loan and bought subsequently, or returned in reusable condition. Initially this scheme was a roaring success, and the shop had to move to larger premises. However, the Publishers’ Association complained that new books, which were protected by a net price agreement, were being improperly discounted, and refused to supply any more copies. The co-proprietors of The Times, gentlefolk up and down the country who had inherited minuscule proportions of shares from their forefathers (one-seventh of one-third of one-fifth of three-sixteenths is one example given by Boyles), complained to Arthur Walter, demanding that Moberly Bell and Hooper be dismissed and The Times returned to its ancient dignity as a national institution making a respectable loss. Moberly Bell and Hooper offered to buy the paper, but Walter, having led them to believe he would accept, backed down. There followed a period of plotting and counter-plotting in which Walter and his supporters planned to reorganize the paper as a limited company under the management of Cyril Pearson, publisher of The Daily Express, while Hooper and Moberly Bell, unaware of this, considered merging The Times, the Britannica and Hooper’s other business interests into a conglomerate owned by Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, publisher of The Daily Mail—like the Express, a popular tabloid-style paper quite alien to the tone and traditions of The Times. After Pearson withdrew his offer, The Times was sold for £320,000 to Northcliffe (or, technically, to Moberly Bell, acting as Northcliffe’s agent to keep his name out of it) on March 16, 1908, with guarantees of editorial independence and continuity of staff.

Work on the Eleventh Edition carried on, overseen in London by the capable Hugh Chisholm, a journalist whose talents Hooper had spotted in 1900, and in New York by Hooper’s brother Franklin. The target publication date was 1910 and the offices were bulging with slips of paper, index cards, and galley proofs—the proof corrections, not just typos but incorporation of new information, entailed setting up the entire edition twice over. Time was at a premium. Learning that the entry on archaeology in Sardinia and Corsica was factually incorrect, Hooper wrote a cheque for £350 and instructed one of the staff to send an appropriate expert to the islands to provide an update. In all, the Eleventh Edition was put together under the supervision of sixty-four subordinate editors by 1,507 contributors, of whom 35 were women. The compilation of the index was supervised by another woman, the remarkable Janet Hogarth, a friend of Chisholm’s from Oxford days, who had been the first female clerk at the Bank of England before going to work at The Times Book Club; her reminiscences are a key source for Boyles’s book.

The Eleventh Edition consisted of 44 million words distributed over 40,000 articles, and the fact that the volumes were all issued simultaneously gave it the unity of a single work which all previous editions, appearing a volume at a time, had lacked. Since it was all printed at one go, early articles could be kept under constant review and entries could be cross-referenced to an unprecedented extent. The categories under which articles were organized were completely overhauled and expanded; there were new sections on Education and History of Thought, and the Theology section was extended to cover non-Christian religions. Science, for obvious reasons, was among the most transformed sections, benefiting from the greater number of illustrations, maps, diagrams and graphs. Chisholm’s was the guiding hand and intelligence; he had a flair for seeing what was wanted in every article and for recruiting the one person qualified to provide it. (Haxton, inevitably, wrote the article on “Advertisement.”) Biographical articles were not, as previously, confined to dead persons. Contributors were encouraged to develop a personal voice, and were not expected to toe a particular political line, even though Chisholm himself was a staunch Conservative. Of course, the assumption that an encylopaedia entry should openly express an opinion is frowned upon nowadays, but the Eleventh Edition abounds with value judgements, both positive and negative.

Meanwhile, Hooper was falling out with his erstwhile business partner, Jackson, who did not believe in the commercial viability of the Eleventh Edition or in Hooper’s dream that it should be, “from an editorial and scholarly point of view, the greatest book that has ever been published”. The quarrel ended in the law courts, with the disclosure of the roundabout way in which Northcliffe had acquired The Times. Northcliffe, furious, cancelled the contract to publish the Eleventh Edition under The Times’s name, and gave Hooper three months’ notice to quit his office. Without a backer, he was broke. Production of the Britannica was suspended, and all but the senior staff laid off. However, Hooper was not finished yet. There remained a last resort, the refuge of all those with impossible ambitions and apparently absurd projects: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Several of the Britannica staff had an Oxford background, but the Press was already behind schedule and over budget with the multi-volume New English Dictionary, now known as the OED, on which Sir James Murray (who had written the article on the English language for the Eleventh Edition) had been labouring since 1879. The editorial committee declined to be involved. Cambridge academics, on the other hand, had been among the leading contributors to the Ninth Edition. Like Oxford, Cambridge may have been wary, given Hooper’s recent checkered history, but the offer was too good to ignore: guaranteed worldwide sales, a five percent royalty and no publishing costs! Improbably, a key figure on the Press Committee, M. R. James, Provost of King’s, austere scholar of medieval manuscripts and ghost-story writer, warmed to Hooper immediately. A contract was signed on July 31, 1910 stipulating publication of the entire work by December 1; the prestige of Cambridge undammed the block on Hooper’s credit facilities. The presses rolled, and the Eleventh Edition appeared on schedule, coincidentally at the same time as the last volume of the New English Dictionary. The shrill advertisements alarmed some of the officials of the Press; the Publishers’ Association deplored the irruption of its enemy Hooper into the quiet cloisters of a great university; but the book was published, and it sold.

The roll-call of contributors to the Eleventh Edition is illustrious: it included J. B. Bury, Arthur Eddington, Edmund Gosse, Baron von Hügel, T. H. Huxley, James Jeans, W. M. Rossetti, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Rutherford, and A. N. Whitehead. It was warmly reviewed, but inevitably there were dissentient voices. As Boyles admits, some of the articles display attitudes towards race and ethnicity, buttressed by Darwinian assumptions about evolutionary development, which can only be condemned today. Both Catholics and Protestants felt their beliefs had been misrepresented, and each side accused the contributors of favouring the other. Some of the historical articles were written by people who could scarcely be called specialists. Freud and Jung did not appear in the article on psychology. The contemporary agitations of the suffragette movement posed a delicate problem, for Hooper was keen to enlist the support of the women’s movement for the Britannica, while Chisholm doubted whether a separate article on Women was required, on the grounds that women were part of the human race, not a separate race (a courtesy the edition did not extend to persons of color). The article that was eventually printed amounted to a defence of equal rights: still, this was an improvement on the entry in the First Edition, which simply read, “WOMAN: the female of Man. See Homo.”

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Denis Boyles has researched his subject with appropriate thoroughness, and moves a complicated narrative along energetically. The book is well illustrated with photographs of the principal characters. Hopper, the most notable of them all, died of heart failure in 1922; Chisholm and Haxton followed two years later. By then the Twelfth Edition had been produced, darkened, as Chisholm admitted, by “war-weariness,” but neither it nor any subsequent edition attained the cultic status of the Eleventh, which preserves in aspic a view of the world about to be smashed to pieces in the Great War. The nostalgia this arouses is, let us not forget, an accident of history: nobody expected the Eleventh to attain iconic status, although everyone felt it was the best edition so far. Still, it does have a sepia, period feel, about which Boyles writes affectionately and perceptively, referring to the its “plausible, reasonable, unruffled” manner, its “affected, clubby comfort,” and ironically contrasting its confident certainties about Progress with our own “transitional, consensus-driven” time. How has it come about that our world is awash with information yet marked by such extraordinary ignorance? An answer is suggested by the epigram of the philosopher John Macmurray in his classic work Reason and Emotion (1935): “Knowledge is always personal, always somebody’s; but information is just anybody’s.” The most comprehensive encyclopedia in the world can only provide you with the raw material of thought: the thinking is something you have to do for yourself, and the most cursory glance at our education systems will show that, from believing we could know everything, we have come perilously close to preferring to know as little as possible. To do justice to this lamentable state of affairs, we would need to summon Flaubert and set him to work on a new novel.