Encyclopedias

Theodore Zeldin

  • Pan Encyclopedia edited by Judith Hannam
    Pan, 608 pp, £8.99, August 1989, ISBN 0 330 30920 X
  • Longman Encyclopedia edited by Asa Briggs
    Longman, 1179 pp, £24.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 582 91620 8
  • International Encyclopedia of Communications: Vols I-IV edited by Erik Barnouw
    Oxford, 1913 pp, £250.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 19 504994 2
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives edited by Francis Robinson
    Cambridge, 520 pp, £30.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 521 33451 9
  • Concise Encyclopedia of Islam by Cyril Glass
    Stacey International, 472 pp, £35.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 905743 52 0
  • The World’s Religions by Ninian Smart
    Cambridge, 576 pp, £25.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 521 34005 5
  • The New Physics edited by Paul Davies
    Cambridge, 516 pp, £30.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 521 30420 2
  • The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia by H.R. Loyn
    Thames and Hudson, 352 pp, £24.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 500 25103 7
  • China in World History by S.A.M. Adshead
    Macmillan, 432 pp, £35.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 333 43405 6

Why does every home not have a whole wall of encyclopedias, now that we supposedly live in the Information Age? Why have they failed to establish themselves as indispensable items of furniture, against the competition of electronic gadgetry? Because they are contenting themselves with just giving information, instead of sharpening it, so that it points somewhere. Only if they represent an attitude to the world, which people will want to talk about, only if they make a difference to the way life is experienced, can they rival the television set.

So what is the significance of the short encyclopedias which have been tempting readers recently? Pan has just published one barely longer than War and Peace. It is a half-size abbreviation of the Macmillan Encyclopedia, which Harold Macmillan commended when it first appeared as a tool for ‘alleviating bewilderment’ in the face of knowledge. But the attitude towards knowledge of a well-read Classicist like him is not the same as that of the policeman who spends his day meditating silently outside Number Ten. The Pan Encyclopedia does not, in fact, claim that you can win your battle against bewilderment with a tool half as heavy. I see it as something quite different, as inventing a counterpart to Basic English, Basic Knowledge, which ordinary people are expected to possess, people for whom school was no more than a bad dream. Here they can reassure themselves that they have the information they need in order to carry on ordinary conversations. This is a Manual of Contemporary Folklore.

There is no entry on Culture, but there is one on the Cultural Revolution, which in Britain has almost the news value of a distant earthquake. The Australian cat-like mammal the Cuscus is in it (TV nature programmes are popular), but Couscous is out. If you look up Lévi-Strauss, you will find only Lewis, Carl, sprinter. Linguistics is in, and even ‘structural linguistics’, which is defined as ‘viewing the world in terms of structure’, but there is no entry for structure, still less structuralism. This Pan volume emphasises just how much intellectuals (no article on that either, it is not in the popular English vocabulary) live in a separate world in this country. It judges that Christopher Fry has a place in conversation, but not Roger Fry, nor Elizabeth Fry. The spy Fuchs has a substantial entry, but whereas the Macmillan Encyclopedia adds ‘his motives were idealistic,’ Pan considers it wiser to leave out that possibly unpatriotic thought. Ordinary people are of course not interested in French politics (Le Pen is out), still less Greek politics (Papandreou out), or fancy psychological theories (Erich Fromm out). Even feminism is too highbrow. Instead of Germaine Greer, there is Navratilova. When a poet does scrape in, like Robert Frost, all one needs to know is that he was famous, not why. Success matters more than states of the soul; the successsful are the pagan gods of ordinary life.

The reader is judged to need ‘real’ facts, the kind Mrs Thatcher wants schoolchildren to be taught: ‘a frog is a tail-less amphibian ... The European frog grows to 10 cm, it is greenish with black markings.’ The ambiguities of beauty are not facts. You will learn here that the world produces (apparently) more mangoes than grapes. The article on Ivan Lendl says little more than that he has never won at Wimbledon: that is another of the facts of life.

Is a subject fit only for Channel Four if it does not appear in this encyclopedia? Pan have produced a remarkable analysis of popular taste, which I enjoyed reading as though it was anthropology, a vision of present-day Britain. But they have done it by intuition, not by research, not as a phonetician compiles a description of pronunciations most frequently used. It would be instructive if a sociologist now tested the British public to discover just what they do know, using this as a measure.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia, which dates from 1981, was written, in the space of one year, by the same firm of packagers which has also produced the Collins English Dictionary. An American version of it appeared as the Random House Encyclopedia. It is to be distinguished from the Macmillan Family Encyclopedia in 21 volumes, costing £475, to which Macmillan gave its name only four years ago and which was written in the US, where it was called the Academic American Encyclopedia, though its originator is the Dutch Spectrum Encyclopedia. The Dutch, deciding they could not sell a translation in the English-speaking world, had a new one compiled for America. Just as one’s expensive shirt with a smart Parisian label is likely to be made in Hong Kong, so an encyclopedia’s origins are seldom what they appear to be.

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