Andrew Brown: A Brief History of Encyclopaedias

(Hesperus, 2011)

Anyone who includes spoof encyclopedia titles on the book cover (A Complete Guide to Dysslexia), and starts a book about encyclopedias with a joke can’t be entirely dismissed. Andrew Brown starts his book as follows:

I may not be the best person to write a history of encyclopaedias, however brief: I have never read one. Not all the way through.

Unfortunately, the jokes in the rest of the book are either more stretched, or rather overshadowed at times by the author drawing attention to his own learning. In fact, Mr Brown commits the crime of breaking one of the more important rules of encyclopedias: the task is to make the content accessible, not to persuade the reader that you are clever and they are not.  The author has chosen not to use footnotes or to quote his sources, but he nonetheless refers to authors he has read by their surname only. Now, regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of Tom McArthur, but how many readers of this book will identify a reference to him. It is surprising to encounter, in a book about encyclopedias, the statement “this etymology is, according to the best of today’s sources, correct.” Given Brown’s point about the relative nature of knowledge, it is impressive indeed that our age has reached the definitive statement of the truth, and Mr Brown doesn’t need to tell us which source that statement was derived from.

Brown’s brief history manages to be brief but nevertheless dull in parts.  It is all of 107 pages long, of which only 74 pages are the history (and at around 300 words a page, this totals just 22,000 words), while the last section, in keeping with the series style, includes some examples of the genre, labelled “A short dictionary of encyclopaedic themes”.  I thought these might be spoof encyclopedia entries, but unfortunately, they are not; they are simply discussions arranged in paragraphs labelled A to Z.

Regrettably, the author also fails to illustrate some of his key points. There is a good description of Pierre Bayle, and a fascinating link to Moliere, but not a line from any of Bayle’s works. In contrast, some of the wackier medieval encyclopedias are quoted in detail to show how much was copied from one compilation to another.

The division of space in this short book is curious. It would be a masterpiece of compression to keep the history of encyclopedias this short, yet Mr Brown devotes eleven pages to Arabic encyclopedias and eight pages to Chinese encyclopedias –  and in claiming that many of them are nothing but vast lists, he manages to create an interminable list himself. We learn little that is distinctive about the Chinese encyclopedia, and we aren’t encouraged to learn when the author uses terms without explaining them: we are told that the 1725 Gujin tushu Sicheng is the largest of the leishu to be still in existence. This is fascinating, but what is a leishu? More space is allotted to early editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica than to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Yet Wikipedia, which could be described as the most radical encyclopedia ever, is given only two pages.

All in all, a fascinating subject, but covered in a quirky treatment that is only compelling in parts.