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Book Review

An encyclopedic biography of the iconic reference work

Denis Boyles offers a surfeit of information on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Like the Oxford English Dictionary, the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was a product of the reference book’s golden age. Aimed at the improving, literate middle classes, grounded in the gospel of progress, Britannica was as forward-looking as the sunny Edwardian era that produced it.

The collected wisdom of more than 1,500 experts was distilled into 29 volumes, published in 1911, that claimed to be the last word on nature, science, theology, religion, history, geography, you name it. As Denis Boyles writes in this entertaining if sometimes maddening account — which takes its title from a hyperbolic advertising slogan — “A hopeful, educated man or woman . . . could open a volume of the Britannica and see that all the people and places were accounted for, and all the bits and pieces, buildings, monuments, and ditches of the entire planet were measured in length or weight or height and put in their proper place.”


Boyles shows in great detail that the Britannica was as much a product of advertising and marketing as it was of condensed knowledge. The project was the brainchild of American book salesman and publisher Horace Everett Hooper, who trafficked in cheap reprints. A deal-making Anglophile, Hooper bought up the rights to the ninth edition in 1897 and started scheming with plans for an updated edition.

Hooper shook up the staid world of British bookselling with gimmicks galore, which emerged from the fevered mind of his associate, ad man Henry Haxton, who favored ALL CAPS and clever ploys to drum up reader interest.

To further his ambitions, Hooper approached an important but ailing British institution — The Times of London. Hoping to leverage the prestige of the newspaper, Hooper made a deal that would benefit both parties. The luster of the Times would rub off on the encyclopedia, which in turn would help subsidize the paper’s operations. The bumptious Americans ruffled feathers of the staid poobahs that owned shares in the paper. Haxton’s breathless advertising festooned editions of the newspaper as a 10th edition was readied.


Boyles takes a long time getting to the ostensible subject of his book. He takes detours and digressions through the worlds of newspapering and book publishing in chapters that will be of interest to specialists only. Like the reference work he details, “Everything Explained That Is Explainable’’ tells you a lot you don’t know — and even more that you perhaps don’t really care to know. Still, Boyles writes with such a mordant touch his chapters move along even as they assault you with hurricanes of information.

Needless to say, the deal with the Times fell apart, and Hooper moved his project to Cambridge University Press for the 11th edition. Under the editorship of highbrow journalist Hugh Chisholm, the project took a decade to bring to fruition. Contributors included countless Oxbridge dons, as well as naturalist John Muir, G.K. Chesterton, and Bertrand Russell. Algernon Swinburne did the Victory Hugo entry, while Alfred North Whitehead parsed geometry. One Carroll Wright covered American labor issues, while a George Wrong dealt with Canadian history. Boyles has fun with this kind of thing.

The 11th aimed to capture the very essence of the modern world. Some older entries from previous editions were recycled, but newer entries dealt with, for example, the impact of Darwin on social thought and religion. All was controlled by the guiding hand of the redoubtable Chisholm. He knew everybody, and knew whom to call on whether the subject was aardvarks or Zanzibar. (There is even an entry for “Abracadabra”)


“Chisholm had an instinct for miscellany.” observes Boyles. “[H]e knew that to create a reference work that encompassed all things known meant that the work’s editorial cartography had to include all those landmarks, events, personalities, and objects that people would expect to find in an encyclopedia, along with a good dose of things a reader would never have thought of but would be glad (and amused) to find.”

Not all of it was enlightened — the 11th reflected the dim racial views of the day. But the volumes live on, even in the Internet age. As Boyles points out, today’s reference go-to, Wikipedia, emerged from the “content backbone” of — where else? — the 11th.


On the Creation of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911

By Denis Boyles

Knopf, 442 pp., illustrated, $30

Matthew Price, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at mprice68@gmail