Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

They look like a segment of Borges’s Library of Babel: twenty-four volumes almost uniform in bulk (a thousand pages each, give or take a few), identically bound in a reddish-brown cloth that resembles the leather commonly called morocco. On the spine of each volume an alphabetic range is represented by the first letters of the volume’s first and last entries: A to Anno. Annu to Baltic. Baltim to Brail. Sometimes it’s possible to guess what these entries are, mostly not. Rayn to Sarr. Sars to Sorc. To me as a child the labels seemed like guideposts along an epic journey, pointing me through land after land: Libi to Mary. Maryb to Mushe. Mushr to Ozon. Once they had their own special bookcase of lustrous wood, three rows of eight volumes each; now they share with other stuff one painted shelf and half of another on the wall beside my desk. I still open a volume now and then, sometimes seeking information, but usually not. The set is as old as I am, and I am conscious of the similarity.

The Fourteenth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published in 1929. Unlike previous editions, which were updated only by periodic supplementary volumes that began again at A, the Fourteenth was updated whenever it was reprinted: the editors chose certain stretches for revision, saving others for later reprintings, like a farmer rotating his crops. My family’s volumes are copyright 1941, and though many articles had been added or updated to take account of the fast-changing world of the 1940s, the majority remained identical to the 1929 originals. This brief entry (which I don’t remember ever reading as a child) falls between “Hitchin,” a market town in Hertfordshire, and “Hittites, the”:

Hitler, Adolf (1889– ), Bavarian politician (Austrian by birth), was born at Braunau, Upper Austria on April 20, 1889. He was an architect’s draughtsman by profession. He was a leader of the reaction in Bavaria, and founded, in 1919, the national socialist workers’ party, formed to oppose the social democrats, in reliance on a military organization known as the Hitler volunteers.

The entry goes on to say that Hitler has repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, is “violently anti-Semitic” but “sincere and strict in his conduct,” “abstains from meat, liquor, and tobacco,” and “is unmarried.” The key to his fundamental ideas “is his autobiography, Mein Kampf, dictated while he was in prison.” That’s it.

In the twenty-third volume (Vase to Zygo) is an article titled “War in Europe, 1939– ” that’s very much longer than Hitler’s and was obviously written later. Between the updating of the eleventh volume (Gunn to Hydrox) and the twenty-third, the editors were able to write up the early events of the new war. (“The most unpopular in history,” the article says.) I don’t remember reading that article either, though I have a memory of the maps.

My own secret path through the twenty-four volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica only skirted such inflamed topics: they weren’t what I sought or where I went. But this is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter. It’s impossible not to absorb something from some of them. Look up “Dog” (Damascu to Educ) to study the attractive plates and to pick the breed you most want to own, and you may notice the nearby entry for “Dogger Bank” (“an extensive shoal in the North Sea”) and the sea battle fought there on January 24, 1915, which you had not previously heard of.

What is the use of having an alphabetical compendium of universal knowledge in the house? The two-volume Supplement to the Third Edition (1801), published when the E.B. was still a Scots enterprise, argued that all such compendiums are not created equal: “The French Encyclopédie has been accused, and justly accused, of having disseminated, far and wide, the seeds of Anarchy and Atheism,” the editor wrote in the dedication to King George III. “If the Encyclopaedia Britannica shall, in any degree, counteract the tendency of that pestiferous Work, even these two Volumes will not be wholly unworthy of Your Majesty’s Patronage.” When the Britannica came to striving and self-reliant America (it had been pirated and reprinted frequently in the United States throughout the nineteenth century before finally becoming an aboveboard American product), its uses changed, and its purposes were democratized: education of the unschooled, self-improvement, brain food for all. “The Americanized Encyclopaedia Britannica is an inexhaustible mine of wealth to the earnest student,” an 1895 pamphlet pronounced. “It is an endless orchard in which he may wander, plucking from every variety of the tree of knowledge the ripe fruit nourished by the work and thought of all the sages of the universe.”

This — albeit with a less florid pitch and more practical examples — was how the E.B. was sold by what became a crack team of traveling salesmen: the encyclopedia would make you, and, more important, your kids, smarter and therefore more successful. Lance Bird sold books in Indiana in the 1960s (“books” was always the salesman’s term) for a company whose tactics were modeled on the highly successful E.B. team, with a little fraud thrown in. “We had a leader,” he told me, “a guy with a big car that could hold five junior salesmen. He’d drive his Edsel around these small towns until he found the right kind of neighborhood — not wealthy, not poor — where we’d be dropped off.

“We had a special language for describing the likeliest houses for us to hit up. The customer — the ‘mooch,’ he was called — should be young and have a young family that he wants to see succeed, so he wants this advantage for them, right? So you look for signs of kids — ‘crumb crushers,’ our guy called them — or kids’ playthings, swings and so on; that was ‘crumb-crushing equipment.’ A good place to find a receptive mooch was in a second-story apartment reached by an outside staircase, likely a first home — those were ‘creeper apartments.’ The pitch went sort of like, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Mooch, our company is conducting a research program in your area, and we want to place these beautiful books in your home at no cost to you, now or ever. All the company asks is that you keep the set up to date.’ This meant buying a supplement every year for ten years at, like, fifty dollars a copy, and the whole cost of that had to be paid in advance.” That five hundred dollars was, in effect, the cost of the set.

Some days, he told me, were good, but most were not: “At the end of the day we’d all get collected again and swap stories. The boss spent a lot of his own time playing miniature golf, which he was passionate about, when he could find a course. Windmills, castles, wishing wells. Sometimes he asked me to play with him, and I’d lose a sale.”

I can’t now be sure of my parents’ motives for buying the Britannica, though getting ahead never seemed to be the motive for much of anything they did. It may have been to resolve arguments: we were a large and disputatious family, and needed an unchallengeable umpire. Whatever the reason, the books were much loved and much handled, the fore edges of certain volumes darkened where they had been repeatedly opened by grubby fingers.

Nobody in the family ever had the idea of reading the whole thing straight through, though this has been the occupation or ambition of nerds and bores for centuries. (The most recent to make his assault widely known is A. J. Jacobs, in The Know-It-All, a strenuously amusing piece of pointlessness.) “It is no longer considered realistic, or feasible, for any one person to be truthfully described as having encyclopedic knowledge,” Wikipedia tells us in the entry for that term (and it or they should know). Yet there’s a lingering draw to the E.B. — the printed volumes, that is — a sort of Everest effect, the biggest thing in all the world. Bertrand Russell said it was “the only book that ever influenced [Aldous] Huxley. You could always tell by his conversation which volume he’d been reading. One day it would be Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath.”

But it’s not as though you could turn to the articles on clockwork or shipbuilding or optometry and teach yourself those skills. Anyone who tried this, back when the encyclopedia was the chief resource to hand (as I did, trying to learn masks, drawing, and puppetry), would have found the articles at once inspiring and defeating, of little help no matter how often and attentively they were read. I could follow a little the methods for drawing, and managed smudged copies of the samples shown. I also contemplated a graphic showing “lines which are essentially beautiful and unbeautiful” — a swift arcing pen stroke to illustrate the former, a squiggle of tangled string for the latter. A subsection of the article on masks was by the great illustrator and mask maker Wladyslaw Theodor Benda, and even included a diagram for making one of his weird creations, which I went nuts trying to follow.

Before that, I tried to learn about sex from the E.B. The daring I felt in even looking up the topic in secret filled me with a weird elation and, yes, a kind of heat. The article, though, was entirely devoted to sexual differentiation in various plants and animals, with elaborate tables of X and Y chromosomes. “Reproductive System, Anatomy of” featured an old “transverse section” of a sheep’s prostate and a diagram of a testicle revealing a worm’s nest of seminiferous tubules inside, a view I could not relate to my own or to anything else.

More accessible, if not much more instructive, were the many plates in the article on “Sculpture Technique” in the same volume as “Sex,” Sars to Sorc. Amid the many naked and half-naked men and women was one young girl, an eighteenth-century terra-cotta piece by Clodion, with breasts bare above her long skirt, which she had gathered up in front to carry her load of fruit and flowers. She had a sweet, silly smile and round cheeks, and somewhat resembled Annette, or Sandra Dee, or even Betty or Veronica. My dream girl, singular to me, but now of course reproduced countless times from different angles on Pinterest and elsewhere, the hussy.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has long since ceased to exist as printed books. The last full set, the Fifteenth, from 1974, cost $1,500 and eventually ran to thirty-two volumes; the first CD-ROM edition (released in 1993) was nearly as much, though the price fell rapidly. Now the encyclopedia persists in living form only online, its upkeep and revisions paid for by subscription charges and columns of advertising. Its current managers are proud of it still; that moment in 2005 when the young Wikipedia was measured for accuracy and came close to but didn’t equal the E.B. was counted by the elder source as proof of its scholarship as much as evidence for the surprising reliability of its upstart child.

For a child is what — in one sense — Wikipedia is. Wikipedia’s article about itself will tell you that it absorbed much of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was by then out of copyright. After starting as a small early mammal dodging the lumbering dinosaurs and eating their eggs, Wikipedia has by now entirely redefined what looking stuff up means. It promises (threatens?) to become a repository not only for all stories of human effort and achievement but for every kind of human inanity as well. Look up the name of almost any breakfast cereal on Wikipedia to see its evolving icon design and P.R. plans; find the names of the neighbors in Sixties sitcoms.

Even today, though, many Wikipedia searches will land you in an ancient E.B. article, sometimes heavily updated, sometimes not. You may have an interest in Ammonius Grammaticus, the “4th-century Egyptian priest who, after the destruction of the pagan temple at Alexandria (389), fled to Constantinople.” You won’t find him in the Fourteenth, but he was in the Eleventh, whence Wikipedia extracted him. Ammonius Saccas, the founder of Neoplatonism, is in the Fourteenth — right where Grammaticus should be — though “practically nothing is known about his doctrines”; he appears at greater length on Wikipedia. The long article on the Encyclopaedia Britannica that appears on the E.B.’s website notes that space was made in the Fourteenth Edition for new articles on scientific and other subjects “by cutting down the more ample style and learned detail of the 11th edition, from which a great deal of material was carried over in shortened form” or shortened to nothing, like the entry on Grammaticus. “Some articles suffered from this truncation, done for mechanical rather than editorial reasons,” the E.B. historians admit. No such limits apply to the digital offspring, in which alphabetical order is meaningless, too.

So what, again, is the E.B. for? Like Bruges in Belgium (Brain to Castin), it’s a lovely dead city, effectually landlocked as its harbor silted up over time; it has no reason for being. Its lists of contributors are a veritable garden of old Wasp names: Cloudesley Brereton wrote on Oxford; Sir Muirhead Bone covered Drypoint; the Rt. Hon. Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff did Laurence Oliphant (in part). But the article on mass production is by Henry Ford, and the article on Lenin is by Leon Trotsky. (The article on Trotsky is by Arthur Ransome.) Max Reinhardt and Constantine [sic] Stanislavsky covered theater, in part; James Weldon Johnson the American Negro, in part. How can my possession of all this not be justified?

Yet there will come a time when I have to surrender the set; my children certainly don’t want it, and neither does anyone else. Should it be “put down” now, like a weary old dog, rather than left to linger on when I’m gone and there is no one to care for it? (I see that a complete Fourteenth, nicer than mine, was recently snapped up for around $200 online.)

Books left alone on shelves change in nature even as they stand still, and books of facts change more than most. The E.B. I own began as the world: to wander there was to wander in the world and all that it contained, passing by many things and places and people, coming to a halt at one or another thing without always knowing why. Those dons, scientists, clergymen, retired army officers, and others who wrote the entries didn’t share a single viewpoint, but they shared a belief in the solidity and explicability of the world they described. Over time, part by part, article by article, that world ceased to be the world and has become now a world, one that is unique and sealed at its ends but still virtually endless within: a gigantic fiction made of facts, an orbis tertius like the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia imagined in another Borges tale, which sometimes contains the numinous world of Uqbar that exists nowhere else. That’s the reason above all other reasons why the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going to stay by my left shoulder. I don’t need to open it to know its insides are growing more imaginary all the time.

More from

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now