When I was in high school and needed to look up something I didn’t know, I went to the public library and dared to forage among the pages of the most authoritative reference work available: the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can’t remember which edition it was, but I opened it with the unshaken certainty that experts had distilled vast quantities of useful knowledge for my edification, entry by entry, in those gossamer pages bound sturdily in burgundy leather. How I envied people who owned a set of these weighty tomes! Men and women who knew just the right amount of almost everything, or something about something, they were much as the young Shah of Iran Fat’h Ali declared himself to be in 1797, when he reportedly inaugurated his reign by reading an entire set of the Britannica cover to cover, and then changed his official title to include “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
The third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1788–97), whose eighteen volumes may have enticed the Shah because they were the first to be dedicated to the British monarch George III, was not yet the seemingly exhaustive reference work it would become by the early twentieth century, when leading minds lent their stature and expertise to the twenty-nine-volume set that was sold to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1920, and later peddled by salesmen door to door. Nor was it the contemporary edition we know today—thirty-two volumes filled with approximately 40 million words on almost half a million subjects—which Esquire journalist A.J. Jacobs famously read early in the millennium, an experience he would go on to recount in The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.
Jacobs’s desire to master the ultimate reference work seems to have spawned imitators. A few years ago Ammon Shea published a book about his experience reading all twenty volumes of the most recent print version of the Oxford English Dictionary, containing about 59 million words, from “abluvion” (things washed away) to “zyxt” (to see, in Kentish dialect). Shea followed this epic task with a study of the history of the phone book.
Where did the mania for print compendiums begin? The original “British Encyclopedia” was the brainchild of two ambitious Edinburgh publishers, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who employed a printer and aspiring naturalist turned writer, William Smellie, to compose—or as Smellie later reported, compile “with a pair of scissors“—the entries for the first edition of 1768–71. Their goal was to create an indelibly Scottish product to compete with that most learned and controversial manifesto of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert’s twenty-eight-volume Encyclopédie (1751–72). Macfarquhar and Bell’s hastily assembled three-volume set was no hardy tree of knowledge but a mere sapling whose fruit was blemished by the errors, “mental, typographical, or accidental,” that were the bane of all encyclopedias and their makers. Nevertheless, its roots sank deep into new territory: as Macfarquhar and Bell explained, theirs was a useful and accessible reference work that could be read by “any man of ordinary parts.” Even the Scottish Enlightenment was not without new-media hype.
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the Encyclopedia Britannica grew in size and stature to become a well-regarded reference work. Its array of volumes, which multiplied rapidly with each subsequent edition, traversed the length and breadth of the British Empire, educating the many rather than the few through an expanding corpus of articles. In 1795 a British military officer named Michael Symes lent his copy of the far more scholarly and comprehensive third edition to King Baba Sheen so that the Burmese ruler could have the entry on glass-making translated in order to benefit from British know-how and ingenuity. A young and impoverished Michael Faraday is said to have read a copy by night while apprenticed to a London bookbinder, an exercise that might have given him the foundation to become one of the great scientists of his generation. In the end, the British encyclopedia outlasted its French counterpart. The Encyclopédie remains an irascibly brilliant artifact of its moment, whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica, continually revised since the 1930s to alleviate complaints about the inevitable obsolescence of content, is a durable time capsule of eighteenth-century design, allowing for the storage and transmission of knowledge across cultures, continents and generations.