An Outline of Outlines

Graham Hough

Way back, when the century was in its early prime, we used to have Outlines of Everything. The archetype was the Outline of Modern Knowledge, but there were lots of others. I can see them still, pointing steadily leftwards, very long on tendencies and rather short on facts; those diagrams of a pig’s uterus that were supposed to teach us all about sex; those maps, full of trends and lines of force but most of the actual place-names missed out. I remember William Empson devising an Outline of Outlines, reduced in the end to a single sentence: ‘Everything is pretty all right because of science.’ Where are they now? Sunk back into the vast ocean of superannuated enlightenment. If we are to find the origins of these waves in the flood of printed matter we must look into the collective unconscious of publishers – a dusky region but not proof against all conjecture. In the Thirties they were afraid of being overtaken by a brave new world with nothing on their lists but The Wind in the Willows and a reprint of Unto This Last. Today the threat is more alien and more comprehensive: data-banks, silicone chips and information-retrieval processes threaten their very being, and they are fighting what they hope will not prove a rearguard action for the survival of the book itself. It is this, one supposes, that accounts for the extraordinary spate of reference books that have suddenly appeared on the market. It is not altruism or the death wish or precognitive discernment of some otherwise imperceptible demand: it is the desire to show that a surprisingly large amount of information can be compressed between two hard covers and retrieved by the comparatively trifling labour of turning the pages. In this the publishers are right, and the older forms of visual aid which they produce and purvey still have notable advantages over the microfiche, the public-address system and the television screen.

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