Easy Chair — From the February 2016 issue

Rule, Britannica

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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.

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