The Great Summing Up
The volumes that compiled the knowledge and spirit of an age
By James Gibney
June 6, 2016
Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910–1911 by Denis Boyles; Knopf, 464 pp., $30
Forty-four million words, 40,000 entries, and 28 volumes. More than 1,500 contributors shepherded by 64 editors, with an editorial budget in today’s money of $30 million. By any yardstick—and you’d need at least one to measure it on a bookshelf—the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was a beast. More than a century after its publication, it still casts a long intellectual shadow. With an author roster drawn from history’s Who’s Who—George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Rutherford, John Muir, and Bertrand Russell, to name but a few—it became the first encyclopedia to sell more than a million copies. Today, it lives on in countless printed anthologies and digital reproductions, and as feedstock for Wikipedia.
Less well known is the visionary hucksterism behind its birth. In Everything Explained That Is Explainable, Denis Boyles brings to life a rollicking saga of outlandish schemes, copyright theft, lawsuits, buyouts, and bankruptcies. The Eleventh is rightly hailed as the pinnacle of Edwardian learning. Yet as Boyles, a columnist for Men’s Health and the editorial director of Nova Media in San Francisco, makes clear, its proprietors also revolutionized publishing in the United States and Great Britain, with lessons that click through to the Internet Age.
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James Gibney is on the editorial board of Bloomberg View.