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.

The latest challenge to the Macmillan Encyclopedia is the Longman Encyclopedia. It is boldly advertised as being a first edition. A list of distinguished British academics and experts appears on the front page as ‘contributors’. But if you look more carefully, you will see that about two-thirds of it was originally written by unnamed Americans and appeared previously as the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (which is available in Britain as a Penguin paperback). However much these encyclopedias add or subtract or improve (and Longman’s is the result of a great deal of careful work), they perpetuate the same idea of what an encyclopedia should contain.

Longman has written many new definitions (e.g. Culture and Relativity), but when Columbia says that the novels of Iris Murdoch are ‘subtle, witty and convoluted’, it only changes ‘convoluted’ to ‘highly melodramatic’: and it crosses out the next phrase that they ‘have elicited varying critical reaction’. It finds no fault with Columbia’s long article on Lenin but it removes the sentence that he ‘was one of the greatest and most practical revolutionists of all time’. It modernises by adding to the article on Lentil the information that it is ‘useful in a strict vegetarian diet’. Worthy Americans are thrown out as being of no interest to the British, e.g. the television pioneer Zworykin. That raises the question of just how much encyclopedias edited for a specifc national market subtly discourage us from penetrating into the minor but significant detail of foreign countries, just how much knowledge is limited by national boundaries.

The Macmillan has a nice photograph of Dylan Thomas but does not say why anybody should bother to read him, only that he died of drink. Longman by contrast gives a carefully-worded appreciation, taken from Columbia. Macmillan says that St Thomas Aquinas is one of the most important Catholic theologians but not why, only giving his curriculum vitae. Longman, ignoring his biography, is interested only in his ideas, and gives cross-references to various Isms. The Macmillan says his feast day is 7 March, Longman says it is 28 January. Al-Ghazali, whom Longman defines as the greatest Islamic theologian, gets only half the space that Aquinas is given; but Macmillan is certain that the British do not care who he is. Macmillan has not discoverd Abel Gance; Longman tells you he made the film Napoleon, but you already knew that, you looked him up because you had seen the film; you will have to go to the Grand Larousse to discover what a curious person Gance was.

Market research may say that encyclopedias sell better if they appear impartial, and if they help children with their homework, but that is precisely why they have lost their intellectual hold on adults. They would be more influential if they made their tastes and their criteria explicit, because what people want today, even more than information, is the ability to choose between information; modernity means unending choice, unending crisis. I should like to believe that we are now sufficiently cosmopolitan to be willing to buy encyclopedias written in different countries, as they stand, even in inept translations, because we value their variations and disagreements. That has worked with Larousse’s specialised volumes – for example, on Mythology (which is forty years old and has just been reprinted).

The problem for encyclopedias is not that in seeking to cover the whole of knowledge they attempt the impossible: all art tries to do impossible things and the best art succeeds. No, their problem is to have character. The editor of the Longman says that his reward for having worked through it is that he now feels better-informed. I think that is no longer a sufficient ideal to aim for. There is so much knowledge that no one is adequately well-informed, and a few lines on Gerontology or the Era of Good Feelings (1817-1823) will not advance you very far. When Brockhaus started producing his aptly named Conversations Lexicon in 1796, he could reasonably believe his readers might aspire to be mini-Aristotles, knowing a little about everything. Scientists still expressed themselves in language everyone understood, and ladies’ salons existed to discuss their latest discoveries. But just as in the 19th century the world was carved up by imperialist powers, so, too, was knowledge carved up into empires ruled by specialists.

An encyclopedia for the present generation should be not a phrase book, nor a passport, to carry while travelling through forbidden territories in which we feel lost, but a stimulus to intellectual ambition. We travel nowadays to change our way of looking at the world, not to reinforce it. So it was with increasing pleasure that I read the genuinely new International Encyclopedia of Communications, produced jointly by OUP New York and the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. At first I feared it might resemble a textbook for journalists. But then I saw that it had made a virtue of the fact that Communications is so new an academic subject that it has not yet become a ‘discipline’. The ‘theorists’ who figure in it each have a different idea of what communication means, and the reader develops the impression that the world is full of unmapped paths; there are no signs here saying ‘Keep off the Grass.’ Sapir, for example, is revealed (on the basis of a still unpublished biography, this encyclopedia is not a rehash) as experimenting with poetry as a means of conveying his scientific conclusions, and arguing that a ‘genuine culture’ is one in which ‘the individual experiences a sense of security and an integration of this in his or her world view, so that there are as many cultures as there are individuals.’ Computers are discussed not in terms of rams and roms, but of their impact on war, government, education, commerce, work and economics; in 25,000 words. Here you will discover who Zworykin was, how he thought up the ‘flying torpedo with the electric eye’ – the controlled missile – in 1934, and how he abetted the process by which electronics dominated warfare. Communications includes art and dance, which lead one to The Face and to The Eyes, striking illustrations of Nazis measuring noses, and an amazing fullpage photograph of Bette Davis from the Museum of Modern Art archives. This encyclopedia is full of surprises, of unexpected juxtapositions. It is the product of imaginative minds and of leading scholars not afraid to challenge the orthodoxies: the bibliographies are bold too, and right up to the minute.

To this approach which uses a new perspective and invites a re-ordering of knowledge, Cambridge University Press offers an alternative, a series of regional encyclopedias. The snag with an encyclopedia on India, or any other region, is that you have to be interested in it before you open it. I cannot fault this volume on its own terms, with its conventional compartments: politics, economics, history. But if one asks, ‘Does this enable the reader to make into a part of himself what has hitherto been foreign to him?’ the delightful translations of poetry say yes, other parts no.

The CUP method reflects the strategy adopted by universities in the Fifties and Sixties to divide international studies among regional centres, which meant having a few Western experts on each country. But today these centres have become victims of their own success: each has become a self-sustaining ghetto, too occupied with its own problems to communicate with other ghettos. The next stage in the history of the West is going to involve a massive incorporation of non-European culture, the abolition of the frontier between the exotic and the domestic. That will require a different organisation of scholarship, and a new interest in universal values. Encyclopedias, which are made outside universities, untrammelled by an institutional inheritance, have the opportunity to show how.

The problem posed by CUP’s volume can be seen in accentuated form in the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. There already exists a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Islam (a new edition has reached M), an inexhaustible treasure house of erudition. Now a brave American, single-handed, has tried to condense it, and all recent scholarship, into a mere 1200 entries. Unfortunately, the majority of the headings are Arabic words. Who is going to look up Ridwan to learn what Islam’s notion of felicity is? This barrier is all the more regrettable because the author is a convert determined to explain just how significant the barriers between Islam and the West are, and his personal enthusiasms give his work an engaging liveliness which compensates for the inevitable unevenness of his canvas; the addition of English cross-references would make an enormous difference; but he might say that would spoil it all.

By contrast, Ninian Smart, in his delightfully lucid survey of all The World’s Religions, shows how much can be achieved by adopting a wider perspective. He looks at each religion from seven points of view: ritual, emotion, myth, philosophy, ethics, institutions and art; and he devotes half his space to the modern transformations of tradition, so that the reader is personally implicated. Among Smart’s colourful gallery of extraordinary prophets are the Twenty-Four Fordmakers, who showed how to cross to the other shore of existence; what is increasingly needed is fordmakers who can mediate between civilisations; and they cannot do it as the sage Mahavira, born in 599 BC, did, who renounced the world at the age of 30, plucked out all his hair, and after 12 years of fasting, gained omniscience.

Paul Davies’s exhilarating book, The New Physics, contains another of the elements which a modern encyclopedia needs. It has unhurried, meditative and occasionally even humorous articles by the people who are actually re-inventing the limits of knowledge, articles which are like sharp needles penetrating the void of ignorance. To be inspired to think for oneself, it is important, occasionally, to hear the voices of people who are actively engaged in thinking original thoughts. I do not think it matters that one may not understand everything in this book; it is better to be half-baked than hard-baked, provided one has no illusions about how dough-like one is. It is exciting to be offered ten pages by Stephen Hawking trying to paint space-time, confident only that however many equations are solved ‘we would still be a long way from omniscience.’ It is nice to hear Abdus Salam speculating that the best way to test a unified theory would be to carry 100 tonnes of material to the Moon to work on, which would cost one billion dollars, and that may become worthwhile if nuclear weapons are banned, because ‘technologically-advanced societies must spend funds on high-technology projects, in order to keep the overall economy healthy.’

There are ordinary books which have more of the encyclopedic spirit than ones which call themselves encyclopedias. For example, the new Concise Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages is really, as its editor frankly asserts, ‘an aide-memoire for checking essential facts quickly’; its longer articles are interesting; but it is so cramped for space that it gives only a few lines to China, saying: ‘The impact of Chinese civilisation on the Western world was minimal.’ That closes a door. By contrast, S.A.M. Adshead’s wide-ranging and learned China in World History is full of original ideas: it opens doors and windows and peep-holes in almost every corner of our past.

An encyclopedia, to be a living creature, must show knowledge and imagination meeting, flirting and running away together, even if some of these meetings are disastrous; it must contain the excitement of discovery, and not just describe it; it must eye strange passers-by lasciviously, because the whole point of putting knowledge between two covers is to get ideas which are strangers to talk to each other. Some of the most poetic romances of our time occur in theoretical physics; an encyclopedia strictly confined to the humanities is inadequate. Physics is a meditation on freedom, and therefore on the mass of knowledge that threatens us; it investigates how we can cope with chaos and complexity, how we can live in a world that is at the same time deterministic and unpredictable. The more complex a deterministic system is, the more it is sensitive to minute variations and the more minute errors in it multiply like rabbits. Civilisation has hitherto been an attempt to make humans behave predictably. But the great change of our time is that many prefer innovation, are less frightened by disorder.

So the encyclopedia which only tells us what we ought to know no longer tells us enough. It is more urgent to devise ways of presenting knowledge which stimulate creativity. What matters is how knowledge is handled. It is agility that more and more people yearn for now, not the heavy weight of dogmatic truth. The alternative to bewilderment in the face of knowledge is not more knowledge, but intellectual autonomy and artistic skill, which enable one to shape it into new forms. That means liberating oneself from the legacy which culminated in the 19th century, when the obsession with collecting facts became a substitute for religion. Unfortunately, encyclopedias stored on computers can be altered in detail so easily that through successive revisions they preserve the illusion that they are doing everything that can be asked of them. The very earliest encyclopedias, like Alsted’s (1630), showed imagination in offering to teach not just fact, but ‘paradoxologia’, the art of explaining paradoxes, ‘dipnosophistica’, the art of philosophising while feasting, ‘cyclognomica’, the art of conversing well about anything. Today, we need to add the art of thinking about complexity without simplifying, the art of overcoming the instinct to retreat; it is no longer satisfactory to seek security in the familiar, to hide among the conventions of nation or speciality.

The door-to-door salesman discredited encyclopedias; we have to invent a new sort of mentor, who can show people how to use them. Nietzsche condemned encyclopedias as mere ‘textbooks of low culture for barbarians’. They do not have to be that. It is possible for them to cater not just for immediate needs, but for profound aspirations, to create a vision of how we would like people to be and not just to help them pass examinations, to be works of literature in the fullest sense, to contain imaginative flights.

A multi-volumed encyclopedia can be as long as 800 books. It would need to be very remarkable indeed to be the equal of 800 classics. That is why I have a vision of an encyclopedia of the future as something different, an instrument to foster originality: only in that role could it hope to compete with the television set.